PORTLAND (AP) – New census figures that show a sharp rise in Maine’s poverty level have come under scrutiny because a small sample of households was used to collect the data.

The national survey by the U.S. Census Bureau found that the number of Maine families living below the poverty line jumped 46 percent between 2000 and 2002.

State economist Laurie Lachance said Friday the data are wrong and that the state’s poverty rate may be rising, but not as quickly as the American Community Survey indicates.

“I think it’s virtually impossible that conditions have changed that greatly and we haven’t noticed it at the state level,” she said. “Obviously, though, they’ve captured the trend. It’s going up, but it hasn’t gone up that fast.”

The survey, released Wednesday, used mail, telephone and personal visits to collect data on personal income.

The 2002 survey sample included just 5,910 Maine households, and not all of them were used in calculating the survey’s results.

Chuck Nelson, a statistician at the Census Bureau, said the margin of error for some of Maine’s results, including the number of families living in poverty, was too large to make the findings statistically meaningful.

He said the survey found the number of families headed by single women living in poverty rose from 13,491 families to 18,792 families.

“Well, that’s a big percentage change, but it’s barely statistically significant,” he said.

The results do seem to show an increase in Maine’s child poverty rate, Nelson said. The total number of Maine children living below the poverty level grew from 10.4 percent in 2001 to 15.4 percent in 2002, he said.

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