Friday, August 27, 2004

The nation’s poverty rate rose by almost a half percentage point in 2003 over 2002, the U.S. Census Bureau reported yesterday, prompting Democrats to dismiss President Bush’s claim of an economic recovery.

In 2003, the poverty rate was 12.5 percent, or 35.9 million people, up from 12.1 percent, or 34.6 million people in 2002.

The median household income — $43,318 — remained unchanged during the same period, according to “Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2003.”

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said the new data debunk Mr. Bush’s statements that the “economy has turned the corner.” He said the report is “new evidence” that the president’s economic policy “continues to fail millions of our citizens.”

But Robert Rector, a senior fellow with the Heritage Foundation who specializes in economic issues, countered, “It’s important to recognize that the census poverty figures … are one year old. They cover 2003, not the current year.

“Given the current economic conditions, it is extremely likely that [the poverty rate] fell during 2004, although the official figures will not be available for the next 12 months.”

Locally, the poverty rate declined slightly in Washington, although the poverty rate in the District remained the nation’s sixth-highest at about one in six persons, declining from 17.6 percent in 2001-02 to 16.9 percent in 2002-03.

“The 2000 census ranked us as number 2, so it’s a jump,” said Lynn French, senior policy adviser to the D.C. deputy mayor for children, youths, families and elders. “There has been an improvement … [but] we still have a long way to go.”

The five states with higher poverty rates in 2002-03 than the District are Arkansas (18.8 percent), Louisiana (17.2 percent), Mississippi (17.2 percent), New Mexico (18.0 percent) and West Virginia (17.1 percent).

Ms. French said the poverty data should be viewed in the context of the District’s unique status.

“We are just an urban city,” she said. “Poverty nationally tends to be concentrated in cities. It is kind of unfair to compare us to states.”

As defined by the federal Office of Management and Budget and updated for inflation using the Consumer Price Index, the average poverty threshold for a family of four in 2003 was $18,810. For a family of three, it was $14,680; for a family of two, it was $12,015; and for individual persons, it was $9,393.

Nationally, the poverty rate remained strongest among immigrants, with 21.7 percent of foreign-born noncitizens living below the poverty line in 2003, up from 20.7 percent in 2002. This percentage of poor among noncitizens is almost twice the 11.8 percent figure for native-born Americans, and more than twice the 10 percent for foreign-born naturalized citizens.

The median household income of people born in the United States was $44,347 in 2003, the same as it was in 2002. But the median household income of the foreign-born declined by 3.5 percent to $37,499.

The District’s neighboring states had relatively low poverty rates coupled with some of the nation’s highest median household incomes, according to the census data. Maryland’s poverty rate was 8.0 percent, or 49th among the 51 jurisdictions compared, and Virginia’s 10.0 percent ranked it 36th.

Maryland had the second-highest average median household income at $55,213, just dollars shy of the top median household income in New Jersey of $55,221. Virginia had the seventh-highest average at $52,587.

The median household income in the District averaged $42,597, at 28th and near the national median of $43,527.

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, was “very pleased” to see his state’s wealth reflected in the census report, although he remained determined to further boost the economy and foster job growth.

“There is always room for improvement,” said Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell. “What that census does not show is that the governor inherited a serious deficit and an anti-business climate in Maryland.”

A spokeswoman for Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, also tempered the chief executive’s satisfaction with his state’s standing.

“Virginia may be doing a bit better than other states in regard to poverty, but we are still seeing an increase in that population,” spokeswoman Ellen Qualls said. “The most important thing the governor thinks we can do for people living in poverty is to educate and train them for a better job.”

The census report also showed a difference in the numbers of Americans who gained and lost health insurance from 2002 to 2003. Specifically, the number with health insurance increased by 1 million to 243.3 million during that one-year period, but the number of those uninsured also rose.

In 2003, 45 million people were without insurance compared with 43.6 million in 2002. The percentage of the nation’s uninsured population was 15.6 percent in 2003, up from 15.2 in 2002.

Other findings of the new census report include:

• Nationally, the South was the only region of the United States where the median household income dropped last year.

• Women saw their earnings decline 0.6 percent to $30,724 in 2003. This was the first such decline since 1995. The ratio of female-to-male full-time earnings in 2003 was 76 cents for every dollar. That was down from 77 cents per dollar the year before.

• Amy Fagan contributed to this report.

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