Median income falls, but so does poverty rate

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney/Tami Luhby) — Middle-class families continued to see their incomes decline in the aftermath of the Great Recession, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released Wednesday.

Median household income fell to $50,054 in 2011, down 1.5% from a year earlier. Income inequality widened, as the highest income echelon experienced a jump in incomes, while those in the middle of the income range saw incomes shrink.

Meanwhile, the national poverty rate hit 15.0% in 2011, down slightly from 15.1% the year before. Some 46.2 million people fell below the poverty line last year. The poverty threshold for a family of four was $23,021.

Most experts were expecting an increase in poverty, but Census officials said an increase in the number of people working full-time helped keep the rate in check.

Poverty and income inequality have been in the spotlight during the 2012 election. Democrats are positioning themselves as the defenders of the middle class, while casting Republicans as caring only about the rich.

Republicans are looking to overhaul several safety net program, including turning Medicaid and food stamps into block grants in hopes of relieving the federal government’s fiscal burden. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, is trying to paint President Obama as the entitlement president. The Republican presidential candidate is accusing Obama of trying to dismantle the welfare-to-work system by allowing recipients to avoid the employment requirement.

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