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Poverty rate doesn’t rise in 2012

Median household income drops; earnings gap widens

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The U.S. Census Bureau reported some positive figures for the economy Wednesday, saying the poverty rate remained steady for the first time in three years and that the pool of Americans without health insurance diminished slightly, but the news was tempered with a decline in median household income and increases in income disparity since last year.

Together, the findings offer a picture of a national economy that is recovering from the 2007-2009 recession — albeit slowly.

"The good news about this year is that the bad news isn't quite so bad," said Richard Burkhauser, an economics professor at Cornell University.

After climbing since 2007, the poverty rate now hovers around 15 percent. It's among the highest such rates the nation has experienced since the 1960s.

Meanwhile, median household income declined to $50,100, which is 1.5 percent less than last year and nearly 9 percent below the most recent high in 1999. Researchers attributed some of the drop to an increasing number of elderly households.

The Obama administration said things would be worse without the policies the president has pursued.

"It is clear that had President Obama not taken swift and aggressive action to grow our economy and create jobs, today's report would have shown much higher poverty rates, lower incomes, and a greater share of the population without health insurance," said Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank.

Others on the left seized on the mixed report to praise government welfare programs, saying they lessened the recession's fallout.

"Poverty looks really bad for the last couple years, but not as bad as we thought it would be, so the safety net is doing something," said Austin Nichols, a senior research associate at the liberal Urban Institute.

Those on the right are more pessimistic. They point to a steep decline in two-parent households as evidence that the economy is beset by deeper ills than welfare programs can solve. According to the report, children born to single mothers are nearly six times more likely to be poor than those born to married parents.

"Marriage is the nation's greatest weapon against child poverty," Rachel Sheffield wrote on the conservative Heritage Foundation's Foundry blog. "Today's historically high rate of unwed childbearing — over 40 percent — does not bode well for the economic or overall well-being of children, families, and, ultimately, the nation."

Washington also wrangled over data showing more Americans have gained health coverage as the uninsured rated fell by 0.6 percent to 15.7 percent. While opponents of the president's health care law complained the uninsured rate still isn't falling as quickly as he promised, House Democrats said it gives evidence that the law is working.

"The census data illustrates that the Affordable Care Act is improving health care in our country," said Rep. Sander M. Levin, Michigan Democrat and ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee. "Millions of young adults have obtained and maintained private health insurance, and Medicaid played a vital role in protecting families and children from losing health care while the economy improves."

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