The 45 million people – that's 1 in 7 – now being counted as officially poor can consider it a misnomer to call America the richest country in the world.

With the high unemployment of nearly 10 percent and the declining purchasing power of the U.S. dollar, more American families find themselves in dire straits. The latest figures show that almost 15 percent of American households are struggling to put food on the table.

Last year's jump in the poverty rate of 1.8 percent was the single highest increase since the government began keeping such statistics in 1959. The largest jump previous to that was a 1.3 percent jump in 1980 when the U.S. suffered through an energy crisis.

In 2008, the poverty level stood at $22,025 for a family of four. That number is based on an official government calculation that includes only cash income before tax deductions. It excludes capital gains or accumulated wealth and doesn't factor in noncash government aid such as tax credits or food stamps, which have surged to record levels in recent years under the federal stimulus program.

The cities with the biggest gains in poverty – Fort Myers (Fla.), Detroit, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Modesto, (Cal.) – were all hit hard by job loss and plummeting home values.

Pennsylvania ranks 31st in poverty level (11.7 percent) while 8 percent of its citizens 65 or older are below the poverty level.

Beginning next year, the government will publish new, supplemental poverty figures that may reflect even higher numbers of people in poverty. These updated figures will take into account rising costs of medical care, transportation and child care, a change analysts believe will add to the ranks of both seniors and working-age people in poverty.

Innocent victims in the escalating poverty numbers are the children. A staggering one in four children (16.7 million) are living in households struggling to put food on the table. Today there are 19.4 million children who receive free or reduced-price lunch each school day and the projections are not optimistic.

About half of all American children will receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits at some point before age 20. There's also a report of more children being raised by their grandparents. A new Pew research study says one in 10 American children are now being raised by their parent's parent.

The forecast for American adults is not any better. Most Americans (58 percent) are expected to spend at least one year below the poverty line at some point between ages 25 and 75.

Michael Stoll, an economist at the University of Southern California, says it will be difficult for families to dig themselves out of the poverty hole, given the state of the economy.

This is because more of the kinds of jobs they once held – the kind that paid middle income wages – are disappearing, and it appears it will be a long, hard road if or when those jobs return.

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com