(Photo: AP Images / Jae C. Hong)
The poverty rate in America climbed to 14.3 percent last year, the highest since 1994, according to the Census Bureau.
With millions more added to the ranks of the poor, political leaders have been urged to recognize that their greatest responsibility is to the poor and not the middle class.
"There is little indication that our political leaders – regardless of political party – are taking the need to address poverty with fervor," said the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the National Council of Churches.
"Most recently, the campaign rhetoric between Republicans and Democrats has focused on tax cuts for the middle class and not on helping lift those in poverty out of their plight," he lamented.
"Our political leaders' calculated neglect of the poor while courting the votes of the comfortable offends the creator of the universe. Any measures taken should not only stimulate the economy but benefit everyone, especially those living on the economic margins."
The Census Bureau released on Thursday its latest report on income, poverty and health insurance coverage in the U.S. It revealed that in 2009, 43.6 million people were in poverty, the largest number in the 51 years for which poverty estimates have been published.
And while the median household income did not change between 2008 and 2009, the uninsured rate and the number of people without health insurance increased to 16.7 percent and 50.7 million, respectively.
President Barack Obama said in a statement that the report illustrates "just how tough 2009 was" as the U.S. saw historic losses in employment. At the same time, however, he noted that millions of Americans were kept out of poverty last year because of his economic stimulus spending.
Their work is just beginning, Obama said. Their task now is "to continue working together to improve our schools, build the skills of our workers, and invest in our nation’s critical infrastructure."
But even after economic prosperity is restored, Kinnamon stressed the need for direct measures to ensure that vulnerable populations "aren't left behind in the recovery."
Meanwhile, for the millions who have been affected by the economic recession, churches have played a major part in meeting their needs.
Love INC (In the Name of Christ) has opened up a record 15 new affiliates just in the first two quarters of 2010. In total, the nonprofit now has 156 affiliates – representing a network of more than 9,000 Christian churches and 7,000 community-based organizations – in 30 states.
Robert Odom, president of Love INC, said the organization has been feeling the effects of the rising poverty rate.
"The economy has put many people into poverty that were not there before. They are the new poor," he noted. "We are experiencing dramatic increases in the number of calls for assistance and an increase in new communities throughout our nation who want to open a Love INC affiliate.
"The need is tremendous but Christians across the country are responding with help, love and hope."
Last year, the nonprofit helped mobilize nearly 300,000 volunteers to fight poverty and help neighbors in need. They responded to 3,730 calls for help each day and met more than one million needs during the year.