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Appeal to poor for votes may not win election
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Presidential candidates searching for votes in the U.S. heartland will find rising poverty. But appealing to the poor is not necessarily a winning strategy, analysts said.
Midwestern states including Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin -- likely election battlegrounds in what is shaping up to be a tight contest between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain -- have been particularly hard-hit by an exodus of high-paying manufacturing jobs.
Newly released U.S. Census Bureau data show that nine out of the 20 U.S. cities with the highest poverty rates were in the Midwest, and nine of the 20 cities with the lowest median incomes were in the region.
The city with the lowest median income last year -- $24,941 -- is Youngstown, Ohio, where Obama is set to campaign a few days after the Democratic Party Convention in Denver.
The region's poverty rate has climbed 22 percent between 1999 and 2006 compared to a 7 percent rise for the nation as a whole, said Amy Rynell of the Heartland Alliance, which tracks the issue.
"We've heard poverty talked about more in this campaign than we have in the past -- by both parties," she said.
But "you have a situation where most people in the country don't see themselves as poor or disadvantaged, so if you're pitching your message to them solely, you've got a problem," Drake University political scientist Dennis Goldford said.
Voter turnout rises along with income, so the poor vote with less frequency than the wealthy, he added.
The widening income gap between rich and poor is one issue that Obama could tap as a source of voter anger, Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute said.
Last year for the first time in many years, the "wealth gap" narrowed mainly because of sweeping job cuts at Wall Street firms, he said.
But in most professions in the United States, and around the world, the earnings gap between those at the top and those at the bottom has expanded.
Many Americans, however, tend to be satisfied with how much they make, Besharov said.
The challenge for the presidential hopefuls, he said, is finding a prescription that voters believe will make a difference in an age when global forces are shifting capital and jobs around.
The census data showed that more than 37 million Americans, or 12.5 percent, lived below the poverty line in 2007, about the same rate as the year before.
The line is set at $10,210 for a single adult, and $20,650 for a family of four.
But since the end of last year, hundreds of thousands of lost jobs and the housing and credit crises have increased the ranks of the poor, experts said.
The American Enterprise Institute estimated the poverty rate in the 12 months ending in June had risen another 0.5 percent, adding 1.2 million people to the number of poor.
Median income levels have not kept pace with inflation and have actually dropped since 2000, as compared to the earnings growth experienced during the 1990s expansion, Rynell said.
"Wage stagnation is colliding with the increasing cost of basic goods" such as food and energy, she said.
(Editing by Michael Conlon and Xavier Briand)
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