WASHINGTON -- Four out of five U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream.
Data for an AP study point to an increasingly globalized U.S. economy, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs as reasons for the trend.
The findings come as President Barack Obama tries to renew his administration's emphasis on the economy, saying in recent speeches that his highest priority is to "rebuild ladders of opportunity" and reverse income inequality.
As nonwhites approach a numerical majority in the United States, one question is how public programs to lift the disadvantaged should be best focused -- on the affirmative action that historically has tried to eliminate the racial barriers seen as the major impediment to economic equality, or simply on improving socioeconomic status for all, regardless of race.
Hardship is particularly growing among whites, based on several measures. Pessimism among that racial group about their families' economic futures has climbed to the highest point since at least 1987.
"I think it's going to get worse," said Irene Salyers, 52, of Buchanan County, Va., a declining coal region in Appalachia that is one of the nation's most destitute areas. Married and divorced three times, and with a drug-distribution conviction on her record, Salyers now helps run a fruit and vegetable stand with her boyfriend, but it doesn't generate much income. They live mostly off government disability checks.
LI factors 'intensify' woes
John D. Cameron, chairman of the Long Island Regional Planning Council, said he is not surprised at the study's findings, though the numbers do "seem daunting."
"A lot of what we see nationally, we see on Long Island," he said. "But it's possible we have some other factors which can almost intensify the problem."
The cost of living on Long Island, whether it is high taxes or a lack of affordable housing options, adds to the problem, as does joblessness, Cameron said. "You have a number of people who are taking multiple jobs, so that can take jobs away from someone else," he said.
While racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to live in poverty, race disparities in the poverty rate have narrowed substantially since the 1970s, census data show.
Marriage rates are in decline across all races, and the number of white mother-headed households living in poverty has risen to the level of black ones.
"It's time that America comes to understand that many of the nation's biggest disparities, from education and life expectancy to poverty, are increasingly due to economic class position," said William Julius Wilson, a Harvard professor who specializes in race and poverty.
Nationwide, the count of America's poor remains stuck at a record number: 46.2 million, or 15 percent of the population, due in part to lingering high unemployment after the recession. While poverty rates for blacks and Hispanics are nearly three times higher, by absolute numbers the predominant face of the poor is white.
More than 19 million whites fall below the poverty line of $23,550 for a family of four, accounting for more than 41 percent of the nation's destitute, nearly twice the number of blacks.
Growing demand for services
Syd Mandelbaum, founder and chief executive of Rock and Wrap It Up!, an anti-poverty group in Cedarhurst, said there has been an increasing demand for the group's services in all its locations, particularly among seniors. "And this goes across gender, racial, ethnic . . . lines," he said.
Census figures provide an official measure of poverty, but they're only a temporary snapshot that doesn't capture the makeup of those who cycle in and out of poverty at different points in their lives.
In 2011 that snapshot showed 12.6 percent of adults in their prime working-age years of 25-60 lived in poverty. But measured in terms of a person's lifetime risk, a much higher number -- 4 in 10 adults -- falls into poverty for at least a year.
With Colleen Jaskot