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Miami Herald, August 30, 2007: Poverty in U.S. might get worse

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By ANDRES OPPENHEIMER Ifyou were shocked by this week’s U.S. Census figures showing that thereare more than 36.5 million people living in poverty in the UnitedStates, get ready: It may get much worse in coming years!

Before Itell you why I fear that the gap between America’s rich and poor isgoing to widen even more — courtesy of a majority of Republicans andsome Democrats in the Senate who voted against an immigration reformbill what would have given a merit-based path to citizenship to many ofthe estimated 12 million undocumented U.S. residents — let’s take alook at the alarming figures released Wednesday.

• Thepercentage of U.S. residents living below the poverty line droppedslightly last year. But the Center for American Progress, a group thatdefines itself as ”progressive,” points out that in absolute numbersthe 36.5 million U.S. poor are nearly 5 million more than five yearsago.

• The U.S. poverty rate is at12.3 percent, a slight decrease from last year’s but higher than fiveyears ago, when it stood at 11.3 percent.

• Thenumber of U.S. residents without healthcare coverage has reached 47million, an increase of 8.5 million over the past five years. A sizablepart of the U.S. population living below the poverty line or lackingmedical insurance is Hispanic.

While poverty among Hispanicsdropped slightly last year, nearly 21 percent of U.S. Hispanics arestill living in poverty, compared with about 8 percent of non-Hispanicwhites, and about 10 percent of U.S. Asians. Only African Americanshave higher poverty levels, with a 24 percent rate.

And Hispanicsare by far the most likely to be uninsured: 34.1 percent of U.S.Hispanics lack medical coverage, compared with 20.5 percent of blacksand 14.9 percent of whites.

THREE REASONS

Whyam I afraid that poverty levels will not drop anytime soon? First, theU.S. economy is slowing down. Some economic projections are alreadyforecasting a meager 1.5 percent economic growth rate for 2008. That’slikely to cost jobs.

Second, the recent defeat in the Senate ofan immigration reform bill that would have offered a path tocitizenship to millions of undocumented workers who learned English andpaid fines, has resulted in a crackdown on unauthorized residents thatwill only help create an underclass of increasingly alienated — andpoorer — Hispanic immigrants.

”Now, these people will not onlyremain underground, but will be less likely to learn English,” saysMichael Fix, of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan group.“It will keep the undocumented poor for a longer period of time.”

Third,the Bush administration, which has caved in to extremistanti-immigration groups and is now focusing on enforcement-onlymeasures, recently said it will send letters to employers whoseworkers’ Social Security numbers don’t match government records. Underthese rules, employers will have to lay off undocumented workers. Andthose who are laid off are not going to go home, nor stop havingchildren.

”My guess is that people will go from one chickenprocessing plant to another, and their incomes may be reduced, and theymay go through periods without income,” says Cecilia Mu̱oz, of theNational Council of La Raza, a Hispanic rights advocacy group. To makethings worse, some presidential candidates, such as Republican MittRomney, are on a crusade against ”illegal immigration,” contributing– willingly or not — to a climate that encourages city ordinancesacross the country that bar undocumented workers from basic services.

OPPOSITE EFFECT

Myopinion: The last time the U.S. government gave a pathway tocitizenship, in 1986, studies showed that the newly legalized citizensgot better jobs soon afterward.

This time, thanks to a majorityof Republicans who voted against immigration reform in the Senate andthe Democrats who followed them, the U.S. Congress’ failure to approvea path to citizenship will have the opposite effect: It will sendmillions of Hispanics further underground, increasing America’s overallpoverty and inequality rates.

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