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Data show widening future struggle for Americans

4 out of 5 have had problems

WASHINGTON — Four out of five US 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.

An increasingly globalized economy, the widening gap between rich and poor, and loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs are the reasons for the trend, according to a recent Associated Press survey and other economic reports.

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The findings come as President 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.

Hardship is particularly on the rise 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. In the most recent AP-GfK poll, 63 percent of whites called the economy ‘‘poor.’’

‘‘I think it’s going to get worse,’’ said Irene Salyers, 52, of Buchanan County, Va., a declining coal region in Appalachia. Married and divorced three times, 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.

‘‘If you do try to go apply for a job, they’re not hiring people, and they’re not paying that much to even go to work,’’ she said. Children, she said, have ‘‘nothing better to do than to get on drugs.’’

In an interview published Sunday in the New York Times, Obama said he was worried that years of widening income inequality and the lingering effects of the financial crisis had frayed the country’s social fabric and undermined Americans’ belief in opportunity.

‘It’s time that America comes to understand that many of the nation’s biggest disparities . . . are increasingly due to economic class position.’ — William Julius Wilson Harvard University professor

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The president said upward mobility in the United States has been eroding for 20 or 30 years. “If we don’t do anything, then growth will be slower than it should be. Unemployment will not go down as fast as it should. Income inequality will continue to rise,” he said. “That’s not a future that we should accept.”

“Racial tensions won’t get better,’’ Obama added. “They may get worse, because people will feel as if they’ve got to compete with some other group to get scraps from a shrinking pot.’’

While racial and ethnic minorities are still more likely to live in poverty, race disparities in the poverty rate have narrowed substantially since the 1970s, census data show.

Economic insecurity among whites also is more pervasive than is shown in government data, engulfing more than 76 percent of white adults by the time they turn 60, according to a new economic gauge being published next year by the Oxford University Press.

The gauge defines ‘‘economic insecurity’’ as experiencing unemployment at some point in their working lives, or a year or more of reliance on government aid such as food stamps or income below 150 percent of the poverty line. Measured across all races, the risk of economic insecurity rises to 79 percent.

‘‘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.

He noted that despite continuing economic difficulties, minorities have more optimism about the future after Obama’s election, while struggling whites do not.

‘‘There is the real possibility that white alienation will increase if steps are not taken to highlight and address inequality on a broad front,’’ Wilson said.

Sometimes termed ‘‘the invisible poor’’ by demographers, lower-income whites are generally dispersed in suburbs as well as small rural towns, where more than 60 percent of the poor are white. Concentrated in Appalachia in the East, they are also numerous in the industrial Midwest and spread across America’s heartland, from Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma up through the Great Plains.

More than 19 million whites fall below the poverty line of $23,021 for a family of four, accounting for more than 41 percent of the nation’s destitute, nearly double the number of poor blacks.

Still, while census figures provide an official measure of poverty, they’re only a temporary snapshot. The numbers don’t capture the makeup of those who cycle in and out of poverty at different points in their lives. They may be suburbanites, for example, or the working poor or the laid off.

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 of their lives.

The risks of poverty also have been increasing in recent decades, particularly among people 35 to 55 years old, coinciding with widening income inequality.

For instance, people 35 to 45 had a 17 percent risk of encountering poverty during the 1969-1989 time period; that risk increased to 23 percent during the 1989-2009 period. For those 45 to 55, the risk of poverty jumped from 11.8 percent to 17.7 percent.

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