In Florida's Manatee county, poverty reaches 15-year high

MANATEE -- The ranks of Manatee County's poverty-stricken swelled last year, with the economic recession hitting minorities, the less-educated and the young the hardest, according to government estimates set for release today.

An estimated 39,328 Manatee residents, or 12.6 percent of the county's population, lived below the federal poverty line in 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau said. That's an increase of more than 6,000 people from the previous year, when 10.7 percent of Manatee residents were in poverty.

It's Manatee's highest poverty rate since at least 1993, and officials of agencies that serve the poor said Monday it likely has gotten worse since last year.

"I think we're going to see it go up more before it comes down," said Barbara Patten, executive director of the Manatee Community Action Agency. "We're seeing more and more people who've never sought help from our agency before. Some are donors who've now become clients."

The census said its margin of error was plus or minus 1.9 percentage points, meaning Manatee's overall poverty rate actually could be as high as 14.5 percent.

Experts say the increase in poverty reflects the housing slump and recession, which have curtailed incomes, triggered massive job losses and forced more people onto food stamps and other forms of public assistance.

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