I've been poor.

Not dirt poor. Just the kind of poor that made my stomach hurt as I watched the worry lines deepen on my grandmother's brow as she tried to stretch her tiny paycheck from week to week.

I remember sharing an apple with my sisters because there wasn't much food in the sparsely furnished row house where we lived. I recall asking my older sister if we should give a piece to my twin brothers. We couldn't, she said, because they were too small and might choke.

So I sat on the floor with my two sisters and I ate that apple for lunch and listened to the hungry cries of my baby brothers.

Two weeks ago, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that the wealthy are getting richer while the poorest Americans are slipping deeper into poverty. Since then, pundits and politicians have debated whether we should care about this trend, and whether it is, indeed, a trend at all.

Some economists argue that the true measure of poverty isn't income but consumption. They note that nine out of 10 poor households have a color television and six of 10 could play movies on videocassette recorders.

One newspaper headline asked, "Wealth Gap: Why Does It Matter?" The writer went on to say it doesn't. Another banner asked, "Is Accelerating Income Inequality Truly a Problem?"

This debate is too academic. Having lived in poverty, I know how it can leave you dispirited, hopeless and scared, whether or not you have a TV set.

The center's study, titled "The Widening Income Gulf," concluded that the gaps between high-income Americans and others will reach a record level this year. Based on data from the Congressional Budget Office, the center said the gulf between the rich and poor is now greater than at any time since the Great Depression.

It reported that the top 1 percent of households, or 2.7 million people, have as much combined income as the bottom 100 million. The poorest one-fifth of households is expected to have an average after-tax income of $8,800 this year, down from $10,000 in 1977.

Middle America isn't faring that well either. The average after-tax income for households in the middle, adjusted for inflation, has increased only 8 percent over the past 22 years. For 1999, 20 percent of middle-income households will have an average income of $38,700 before taxes and $31,400 after taxes.

According to the study, only the very wealthiest in this country are benefiting from the stock market's surge. Sixty-five percent of the realized capital gains is being pocketed by the richest 1 percent of Americans, or those earning incomes over $260,000 a year.

But critics of the income-gap report point out that the poor are doing much better today than in past decades.

How could it be, they wonder, that the poor are worse off when the economy is so good? Unemployment is low. The stock market is roaring, and everybody with any sense is getting rich.

Authors W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm report in their book "Myths of Rich & Poor: Why We're Better Off Than We Think" that being poor isn't as bad as it once was.

"Perhaps most astonishing of all, poor households in the 1990s in many cases compared favorably with an average family in the early 1970s in owning the trappings of middle-class life," they said.

The poor are more likely than those of a decade ago to own appliances and motor vehicles. The poor have color TVs, refrigerators, freezers, dryers and air conditioners. In the 1990s, 41 percent of the poor own their home, according to Cox and Alm.

"The logical conclusion: Being poor doesn't entail the same degree of deprivation it once did," the authors wrote.

Clearly, poverty is in the eye of the beholder.

Having a roof over your head doesn't mean it doesn't leak or the families inside are well off. Being poor sometimes means choosing between paying the rent and taking your sick kid to see a doctor.

Poor families can spend more than 30 percent of their income trying to find decent housing, according to Iris Lav, deputy director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

I know because I've been there. When I was 4, our house may have had many of what Cox and Alm call the "trappings of middle-class life."

But I still didn't have enough to eat.

Michelle Singletary's column appears in this section every Sunday. While she welcomes comments and column ideas, she cannot offer specific personal financial advice. Her e-mail address is singletarym@ washpost.com. Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

Rich and Poor: The Gap Widens

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently issued a report, based on data from the Congressional Budget Office, that concluded that the after-tax income gaps between the richest Americans and middle-income and low-income Americans have widened sharply since 1977. The gaps are projected in 1999 to reach their widest point in recent decades. Here are some of the findings:

* The wealthiest 2.7 million Americans are set to receive as much after-tax income this year as the 100 million Americans with the lowest incomes.

* The average after-tax income of the top 1 percent of households is projected to climb in 1999 to $516,000, an after-inflation gain of 115 percent since 1977.

* While the top 1 percent of households account for 13 percent of after-tax income, they own 39 percent of the nation's wealth.

* Twenty percent of households in the middle of the income spectrum will have average income of $38,700 before taxes in 1999 and $31,400 after taxes.

* The poorest one-fifth of households will average $8,800 of income this year, down from $10,000 in 1977.