A groundbreaking analysis by McClatchy Newspapers documents the worsening problem of poverty across America, including the South.

It found that millions of working Americans are falling closer to poverty, while the gap between the rich and poor continues to widen. Especially alarming was the finding that the percentage of American living in "severe poverty" -- defined as a family of four with an annual income of less than $9,903 or individuals earning less than $5,080 a year -- has reached a 32-year high:

The McClatchy analysis found that the number of severely poor Americans grew by 26 percent from 2000 to 2005. That's 56 percent faster than the overall number of poor people grew in the same period. McClatchy's review also found statistically significant increases in the percentage of the population in severe poverty in 65 of 215 large U.S. counties, and similar increases in 28 states. The review also suggested that the rise in severely poor people isn't confined to large urban counties but extends to suburban and rural areas.

The Southern states with the highest number of people in severe poverty include Texas (1.6 million), Florida (943,670), Georgia (562,014) and North Carolina (523,511). The others are California (1.9 million), New York (1.2 million), Illinois (681,786), Ohio (657,415), Pennsylvania (618,229) and Michigan (576,428).

Nearly two of three people in severe poverty are white (10.3 million, including 6.9 million who are non-Hispanic). But severely poor blacks (4.3 million) are more than three times as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be in deep poverty, while extremely poor Hispanics of any race (3.7 million) are more than twice as likely, McClatchy found. Ironically enough, the nation's capital is also the capital of the nation's severe-poverty problem:

Washington, D.C. ... has a higher concentration of severely poor people -- 10.8 percent in 2005 -- than any of the 50 states, topping even hurricane-ravaged Mississippi and Louisiana, with 9.3 percent and 8.3 percent, respectively. Nearly six of 10 poor District residents are in extreme poverty.

McClatchy found that severe poverty is worst near the Mexican border and in some parts of the South, home to 6.5 million severely poor residents. At the same time, low-skilled immigrants with poor families are increasingly drawn to the South to work in the meatpacking, food processing and agricultural industries, according to the analysis.

The economic experts that McClatchy consulted for their thoughts had different ideas on what is happening:

"What appears to be taking place is that, over the long term, you have a significant permanent underclass that is not being impacted by anti-poverty policies," said Michael Tanner, the director of Health and Welfare Studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

Arloc Sherman, a senior researcher at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank, disagreed. "It doesn't look like a growing permanent underclass," said Sherman, whose organization has chronicled the growth of deep poverty. "What you see in the data are more and more single moms with children who lose their jobs and who aren't being caught by a safety net anymore."

But perhaps both of these things are true: Perhaps people are falling through the unraveling safety net only to find themselves stuck in an underclass that's hard to escape.

At any rate, it's critical that our leaders in Washington acknowledge the problem documented by McClatchy and take steps to fix it. One good place to start would be to address the serious problems in the latest budget submitted by President Bush.

According to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the administration's spending plan would even further widen the gap between rich and poor by granting people with incomes of more than $1 million tax cuts averaging $162,000 a year in perpetuity while giving states fiscal incentives to push low-income families off the State Children's Health Insurance Program rolls, cutting the low-income home energy assistance program, and terminating food assistance for low-income seniors.