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Record Number of Americans Classified As Poor or Low-Income

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The middle class is shrinking as unemployment remains consistently high and the government's safety net diminishes, the latest census data reveals, reported the Associated Press.

Nearly 1 in 2 Americans now live in poverty or subsist as low income due to the rising cost of living. The new poverty measure takes into account medical, commuting and other living costs as well as taxes.

"Safety net programs such as food stamps and tax credits kept poverty from rising even higher in 2010, but for many low-income families with work-related and medical expenses, they are considered too 'rich' to qualify," Sheldon Danziger, a University of Michigan public policy professor who specializes in poverty, told the AP.

Unfortunately, the forecast is bleak. "The reality is that prospects for the poor and the near poor are dismal," he told the AP. "If Congress and the states make further cuts, we can expect the number of poor and low-income families to rise for the next several years."

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While safety net programs help some Americans get by, critics, such as Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, worry they promote dependency rather than self-sufficiency.

But for others, like Zenobia Bechtol, 18, of Austin, Texas, it's vital to support her 7-month-old baby. Bechtol earns minimum wage as a part-time pizza delivery driver, and her boyfriend, an electrician, lost his job in the recession.

"If it weren't for food stamps and other government money for families who need help, we wouldn't have been able to survive," Bechtol told the AP.