Four years removed from the end of the recession, the nation's poverty rate and median household income are improving at a frustratingly slow pace, according to a report released Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The new survey revealed that 46 million Americans — one in seven — were living in poverty in 2012, and the official poverty rate of the nation remained at 15 percent. The poverty figure was unchanged from 2011, even though the nation's unemployment rate has fallen from 10.1 percent early in President Obama's first term to the current 7.3 percent.
Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, expressed disappointment at the latest census numbers. "This is alarming because policy could have made this better," he said.
Many economists also believe that this stagnation may point to a bigger economic problem. "The poverty and income numbers are a metaphor for the entire economy," said Ron Haskins, Brookings Institution senior fellow. "Everything's on hold, but at a bad level. [...] Don't expect things to change until the American economy begins to generate more jobs."
"We're in the doldrums, with high poverty and inequality as the new normal for the foreseeable future," Timothy Smeeding, an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who specializes in income inequality, told The Associated Press. "The fact we've seen no real recovery in employment and wages means we've just flatlined."
The news was slightly more encouraging on health insurance coverage rates.
New census figures show the number of Americans without health insurance dropped slightly in 2012 compared to the previous year, from 48.6 million to 48 million.
The percentage of people without coverage dropped from 15.7 percent to 15.4 percent, and the percentage of people covered by private insurance (63.9 percent) and by employer-based coverage (54.9 percent) also remained largely unchanged, Census Bureau officials said Monday.
Among those covered by government health insurance, the percentage enrolled in the Medicaid program for the poor held steady at 16.4 percent, but the percentage of those in the Medicare program for seniors and younger disabled persons rose from 15.2 percent in 2011 to 15.7 percent in 2012.
The data also found that the disparity in wages between men and women has not improved from 77 percent, a gap that has remained essentially unchanged since 2002, with the gap even more glaring for black and Hispanic women.
"As a nation, we must do more to close the wage gap, which is present in every part of the country, regardless of women's occupation, education or work patterns," said Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families.
The census data revealed a particular problem for younger Americans, with 16.1 million children (1 in 5) living in poverty last year.
"Children have suffered more than any other group in the economic recession and recovery," said American Academy of Pediatrics President Thomas K. McInerny. "The stress and poor nutrition that afflict children in poverty have lifelong consequences to their health."
Some economists found a ray of optimism in the fact that the poverty and income numbers were at least not getting worse.
Census Bureau analyst David Johnson noted in a telephone briefing with reporters that "for the first time in five years, neither median household income decreased nor the percent of the population in poverty increased."
Also, for the first time since 1992, the changes in both poverty and median household income "were not significantly different" from previous years' statistics.
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