Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series.

Poverty levels not seen in Maine and the rest of the United States in nearly 50 years illuminate a deep-seated economic problem that extends far beyond the scope of social welfare programs. Jobs, not government benefits and tax breaks, will do the most to keep middle-class Americans from plunging into poverty.

In Maine, where median incomes vary dramatically from region to region — from $57,424 in Cumberland County to $32,847 in Washington County — establishing a numeric definition of the middle class is difficult, but poverty is easier to quantify, at least statistically.

The U.S. Census does not include food stamps and other noncash aid, such as tax credits, in setting the 2012 poverty level at $11,170 for individuals or $23,050 for a family of four.

More than a dozen experts surveyed recently by The Associated Press predict that 2011 U.S. Census figures to be released in September will show that a higher percentage of Americans live in poverty now than at any time since 1965, a year after President Lyndon B. Johnson launched his Great Society initiative.

According to the latest U.S. Census data, Maine’s two-year average poverty rate stands at 12.9 percent for 2009-10. The two-year average of Mainers living below the federal poverty limit increased from 12.6 percent for 2008-09, but that increase reflected a much smaller spike than the national two-year average, which rose from 13.8 percent in 2008-09 to 14.8 percent in 2009-10.

Preliminary analysis attributes much of the national increase to record-setting poverty rates among suburban families and individuals classified as “underemployed.” Suburbanites who have been without jobs so long that they’ve exhausted unemployment benefits and “housing bubble” casualties constitute growing new categories of Americans living in poverty.

America’s new poor aren’t the aged and infirm, as was the case when Johnson took on the root causes of poverty in the mid-20th century. They are unemployed workers largely left behind by an economy increasingly based on automation, cost containment and globalization.

For Maine, a state that saw a net loss of gross domestic product in 2011, the rising poverty rates should provide state government and the business community with even more incentive to promote entrepreneurship and technological development, especially in rural areas where jobs offer the best hope to reverse entrenched poverty.

Cutting energy costs, a goal identified by Gov. Paul LePage, and extending more high-speed Internet service into the most rural parts of Maine would help lay the groundwork for the kind of economic diversification that would reduce dependence on paper mills and other job sources that are vulnerable to the vagaries of a volatile global economy.

Reducing reliance on government benefits remains a core element in the ongoing war on the type of institutional poverty Johnson addressed. Reducing dependence on single employers whose vitality determines the overall health of a region or community could serve as a central strategy in a new war to build a stronger middle class in Maine.

Otherwise, state cuts to safety net programs, made by tightening eligibility standards, will become moot as more people lose their grasp on middle class livelihoods and dip below the poverty threshold.