U.S. sings ‘cha-ching’

By MELISSA HEALY

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — Incomes rose across America in 1999 for an unprecedented fifth year and poverty dipped to its lowest level since 1979, the U.S. Census reported Tuesday.

Driven by strong economic growth in the South and the Midwest, median household earnings reached $40,800 — the highest level the Census has found since it first began collecting income statistics in 1967.

And poverty rates, driven down in the West and Northeast, fell for all racial and ethnic groups for the first time since the Census began collecting such data in 1969, settling at 11.9 percent overall.

In Washington state, the median household income in 1999 was $45,639. The poverty rate climbed slightly, from 9.1 in 1997-98 to 9.2 for 1998-99.

The annual Census reports on household income and poverty showed that the incomes of African American and Latino households — with median earnings of $27,910 and $30,735 respectively — were at historic highs. But they remained stubbornly below the $42,504 median income of non-Latino white households.

Asian and Pacific Islanders, with a median income of $51,200, saw income growth of 7.4 percent.

Even children, the Americans most likely to live in poverty, saw their economic lot improved in 1999. Some 12.1 million children were poor in 1999, down 1.4 million and two percentage points (to 16.9 percent) from the year before. The poverty rate among the elderly, meanwhile, dropped to an all-time low of 9.7 percent.

But one labor organization said that the latest Census figures reflect a nation of families putting in longer hours as much as it does an era of new job opportunities and wage hikes.

"Middle-income households are working more hours than ever to stay ahead," said Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-backed research organization in Washington.

Between 1989 and 1999, a typical married, middle-income couple with children added 279 hours — about seven weeks — of work a year. About 33 of those extra annual hours were added between 1998 and 1999, helping to drive the median income hikes seen in the Census Report, Mishel contended.

"That’s a ton of work, and the growth in hours explains most of the growth in income over this last decade," he added.

While Tuesday’s data suggested that economic well-being has improved across the spectrum of region, ethnicity and age, it highlighted troubling imbalances in two areas: between men and women and between haves and have-nots.

According to the Census, the median income earned by women in the full-time, year-round work force lost ground slightly in 1999, while men’s median income grew by 1 percent. That widened an already-yawning earnings gap between women and men. While full-time, year-round working women earned 73.2 cents to every dollar earned by men in 1998, the 1999 figure slipped to 72.2 cents.

Meanwhile, inequities in income remained a strong feature of the American economy. The Census found no significant change in the distribution of income among those up and down the economic ladder — either last year or in the last six years. The poorest 20 percent of Americans still receive 3.6 percent of all income distributed through the U.S. economy in a year.

By contrast, the richest 20 percent of Americans receive 49.4 percent — almost half — of all income the economy delivers annually.

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