New poverty numbers reflect post-recession blues

Percentage of poor Americans highest since 1973

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In the first full calendar year after the Great Recession, the U.S. poverty rate jumped past 15 percent as a new record of 46.2 million Americans fell below the official poverty line, the U.S. Census Bureau said Tuesday in a survey of income, poverty and health trends.

Median household income dipped by more than 2 percent to about $49,500, and the number of people without health insurance increased, although the rate of uninsured households held steady, the bureau said.

The 2010 poverty rate of 15.1 percent was significantly higher than the 14.3 percent rate in 2009 and the highest since 1993. The number of people living in poverty is the highest in absolute terms since the bureau started keeping records in 1958.

These “grim” numbers would have been worse without “key federal programs” such as unemployment insurance, the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps and Medicaid, said Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. It “raises the stakes” for how President Obama and Congress handle economic issues, he said.

A likely reason behind the higher poverty numbers is the rising number of nonworking Americans, said Trudi Renwick, chief of the bureau’s poverty statistics branch.

(Illustration by Greg Groesch/The Washington Times)

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(Illustration by Greg Groesch/The Washington Times) more >

In 2009, 83.3 million people 16 and older did not work at all, “even one week,” Ms. Renwick said. In 2010, this rose to 86.7 million people. “That could be the single most-important factor contributing to the increase in the poverty rate,” she said.

Added Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former staff member of the House Ways and Means Committee: “Worse, children’s poverty increased for the fourth year in a row, and at 22 percent is the highest since 1993.” Child poverty rates have been higher “in only three years since the mid-1960s,” he said.

The poverty threshold for a family of four in 2010 was an annual income of $22,314.

Some say the Census Bureau’s numbers paint too bleak a picture, based on a disputed definition of what constitutes “poverty” in 2011 America.

The bureau’s portrait is “too bad to be true,” said Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

“For most Americans, the word ‘poverty’ suggests destitution: an inability to provide one’s family with nutritious food, clothing and reasonable shelter,” he said, but only a small number of the American poor fit that description.

Instead, a poor child in America is “far more likely to have cable or satellite TV, a computer, a widescreen plasma television, an Xbox or TiVo than to be hungry or live in run-down or overcrowded housing,” Mr. Rector said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said data showing that 500,000 more young adults have health care coverage compared with 2009 demonstrate that the Affordable Care Act is working.

The number of 18- to 24-year-olds with health insurance rose from 70.7 percent to 72.8 percent in 2010, Mrs. Sebelius said. The Obama administration expects even more young adults - who under the Affordable Care Act can be included on parental insurance policies until they reach age 26 - will gain coverage in 2011, “when the policy is fully phased in,” she said.

The Great Recession officially ended in June 2009. Poverty rates and numbers rose in the first full year after the past three recessions as well, the bureau said in its report, “Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010.”

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About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.

Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...

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