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Challenges mount

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While the economy is improving, more Americans face social and financial challenges this year, a new study says.

Quality of life in America dropped for the second straight year in 2002, following eight years of steady increases, United Way of America’s “State of Caring Index” says.

The index fell almost 5 percent from its peak in 2000, and 1.3 percent from 1999, but shows a net gain of almost 20 percent since its inception in 1992.

The study tracks the same 36 long-term indicators, including health, education, financial stability and giving, to gauge well-being in the U.S. each year and focus attention on vital community needs.

Among the challenges are increasing rental costs which, combined with a stagnant minimum wage, mean that many full-time workers must double or triple up to find adequate housing they can afford, the study says.

The middle class is also struggling, faced with increasing unemployment and a median income that has declined 3.2 percent since 1999.

The health insurance gap continues to grow, the index shows, with fewer employers offering coverage and premiums soaring for those who do have insurance, up almost 14 percent since 2000.

These problems combine to create even greater challenges for the increasing number of single-parent households, representing more than one in four families, who have fewer resources to call upon in times of need.

However, the study reports improvements in a few areas, including home ownership, improved fourth-grade reading scores, better maternal and infant health, and a drop in property and theft crime rates.

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