More Americans have fallen into poverty in the last few years during some of the worst economic times since the Great Depression.

"The words 'the poor' becomes a code for black or people of colour and so you say like Newt Gingrich [is] saying: 'I'd rather have white people get a paychecque than food stamps'."

- Barbara Ehrenreich, a columnist

According to the latest figures by the United States Census Bureau, a large and growing number of Americans are poor. These figures suggest that one in three Americans are living in poverty, or what is sometimes called "near poverty".

And these numbers follow years of stagnating wages for the middle class.

On taking office in 2009, Barack Obama, the US president, described the state of the US economy as "a disaster for America's working families".

As the US begins a presidential election year, the economy - and how to fix it - is on the minds of most voters. But taxation and spending policies are the subject of a bitter partisan divide in Washington.

And a few months ago, the Occupy Wall Street movement began in New York and spread around the world. The protesters' slogan "We are the 99 per cent" refers to the growing income and wealth inequality in the US between the wealthiest one per cent and the rest of the population.

"Poverty in this country [the US] right now is colour-coded and the danger with that is it sends the wrong message about what's happening with regard to poverty in this country. The numbers of the poor are growing exponentially; the new poor in this country now are the former middle class. The reality is there are more white Americans in poverty than there are black Americans in poverty in terms of sheer numbers. There are more white Americans in poverty than there are brown Americans in poverty or red Americans or yellow Americans."

- Tavis Smiley, a chat show host

More than 13 million Americans are unemployed, although there have been some improvements recently. And many others, who are in work, have been forced to take pay cuts or a reduction in working hours.

Millions of homeowners have lost their homes to foreclosures, a process whereby banks repossess their properties.

And at the same time, the budget cuts at federal and state level are eroding some of the government's social welfare programmes.

On this episode of Inside Story Americas, we ask: How can prosperity be restored for the American population? And is the American dream fading or should Americans reassess the meaning of the American dream?

To discuss this we are joined by: Cornel West, a philosopher, activist and professor at Princeton University, and Tavis Smiley, a chat show host on Public Broadcasting Service. Together they have authored an upcoming book called The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto. We are also joined by Barbara Ehrenreich, a columnist and the author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

Republican presidential candidates have been speaking against poverty assistance programmes.

"We will make the key test very simple: Food stamps versus paychecks. Obama is the best food stamp president in American history. More people are on food stamps today because of Obama's policies than ever in history. I'm prepared, if the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] invites me, I'll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paycheques and not be satisfied with food stamps."

Newt Gingrich, a Republican US 2012 presidential candidate

While announcing his plan for creating more jobs last year, Obama reiterated his call for the rich to pay more taxes.

"While most people in this country struggle to make ends meet, a few of the most affluent citizens and corporations enjoy tax breaks and loopholes that nobody else gets. Right now, Warren Buffet pays a lower tax rate than his secretary - an outrage he has asked us to fix. We need a tax code where everyone gets a fair shake, and everybody pays their fair share."

US poverty facts

  • More than 46 million Americans, which is 15.1 per cent of the population, are living below the poverty line
  • More than 1 in 5 children are living in poverty
  • Minorities have been disproportionately affected
  • 27.4 per cent of African-Americans are poor
  • 26.6 per cent of Hispanics fall below the poverty line

Source: US Census Bureau

Source: Al Jazeera