WASHINGTON — The number of people in the United States who are in poverty is on track for a record increase on President Barack Obama's watch, with the ranks of working-age poor approaching 1960s levels that led to the national war on poverty.
Census figures for 2009 are to be released in the coming week, and demographers expect grim findings.
The anticipated poverty rate is expected to increase from 13.2 percent to about 15 percent.
"The most important antipoverty effort is growing the economy and making sure there are enough jobs out there," Obama said Friday at a White House news conference. He stressed his commitment to helping the poor achieve middle-class status and said, "If we can grow the economy faster and create more jobs, then everybody is swept up into that virtuous cycle."
Interviews with six demographers who closely track poverty trends found wide consensus that 2009 figures are likely to show a significant rate increase to the range of 14.7 percent to 15 percent.
Should those estimates hold true, about 45 million people in this country, or more than 1 in 7, were poor last year. It would be the highest single-year increase since the government began calculating poverty figures in 1959. The previous high was in 1980 when the rate jumped 1.3 percentage points to 13 percent during the energy crisis.
Among the 18-64 working-age population, the demographers expect a rise beyond 12.4 percent, up from 11.7 percent. That would make it the highest since at least 1965, when another Democratic president, Lyndon B. Johnson, launched the "war on poverty."
Demographers also are confident the report will show:
• Child poverty increased from 19 percent to more than 20 percent.
• Blacks and Latinos were disproportionately hit, based on their higher rates of unemployment.
• Metropolitan areas that posted the largest gains in poverty included Modesto, Calif.; Detroit; Cape Coral-Fort Myers; Los Angeles; and Las Vegas.
"My guess is that politically these figures will be greeted with alarm and dismay but they won't constitute a clarion call to action," said William Galston, a domestic policy aide for President Bill Clinton. "I hope the parties don't blame each other for the desperate circumstances of desperate people. That would be wrong in my opinion. But that's not to say it won't happen."
Lawrence Mead, a New York University political science professor who is a conservative and wrote The New Politics of Poverty: The Nonworking Poor in America, argued that the figures will have a minimal impact in November.
"Poverty is not as big an issue right now as middle-class unemployment. That's a lot more salient politically right now," he said.
Elise Gould, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, said, "The Great Recession will surely push the poverty rate for working-age people to a nearly 50-year peak." She said that means "it's time for a renewed attack on poverty."
In 2008, the poverty level stood at $22,025 for a family of four.