States saw little relief from poverty in the past year, especially among children, the unemployed and those in the lowest income brackets.
The latest Census figures show that 17 states had increases in the number of people living in poverty between 2010 and 2011. Only one state, Vermont, showed a decrease; the other 32 states showed no change.
While the national poverty rate has remained steady at 15.9%, the latest Census data show pockets of increases by geography and among various demographic groups. The data is also a reflection of the economy's slow recovery and anemic job growth, policy analysts and advocates for the poor say.
"The problem is high unemployment," says Chuck Sheketoff, executive director of the Oregon Center for Public Policy. "People are not gainfully employed; they are laid off; they are minimum wage workers."
Oregon's poverty rate was 17.5% in 2011, a 1.7 point increase from the year before.
It was one of 27 states with an increase in the number of unemployed people who became poor as more longterm jobless Americans exhausted their unemployment insurance. Oklahoma, Idaho and New Mexico saw some of the biggest increases.
Fourteen states, including Arizona, California, Georgia, Oregon and Texas, had significant increases in the number of children living in poverty and the number of people living in deep poverty. The Census defines people in deep poverty when they make 50% below the poverty line, which is $23,050 for a family of four.
The plight of the poor was highlighted last week after secretly recorded remarks by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney were publicized in which he said 47% of the electorate did not pay income taxes, were dependent on government and would not vote for him.
Most of those who do not pay income taxes - the figure stood at 46% last year - are poor or seniors, according to the Tax Policy Center.
"If you are not making any money, then you are going to be part of that 47%," says Judith Conti, of the National Employment Law Project. She says more unemployed are becoming poor because they are out of work for so long. Since 2007, 5.5 million people exhausted their unemployment benefits, which topped at 99 weeks, she says.
Luke Shaefer, a professor of social work at the University of Michigan who has researched extreme poverty, says the longterm unemployed are the legacy of the recession.
"To lose your job is awful, but to experience two years of unemployment," he says. "You lose your hard skills; technology passes you by. ... It's not surprising that poverty is going to go up in that group."
Children are casualties when their parents are not working, leading to higher poverty among children, he says.
Helen McKee, 50, of Bridgeport, Conn., says she and her two teenaged children understand the effects of poverty after she lost her job as an accountant in 2009. A single mom, she applied to more than 100 jobs with no success. She borrowed money from friends, babysat, cleaned houses, asked her church for help to pay her mortgage and utilities, went to the local food bank and left thousands of dollars in bills unpaid. She says she was in foreclosure three times since losing her job and has a lien on her condo apartment because she hasn't paid her sewage bill.
Last fall, she exhausted her unemployment benefits, which were $600 a week less than what she made when she was working.
Depressed and out of options, she turned to The WorkPlace, a program for the long term unemployed, which helped her find a part-time job in January. She went full-time this week, making close to her previous salary.
But she says she has a long climb to get back to where she'd been.
"It's depressing; here I am, 50, with nothing saved," she says. "They can't just keep cutting people at the lower or bottom range."
By Marisol Bello, USA TODAY