- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2010

Government figures released Thursday provided a new window on the deep pain inflicted by the recession, with the U.S. poverty rate rising to its highest level in 15 years in 2009 and a record 43.6 million Americans officially labeled poor.

The Census Bureau, in its annual report on income, poverty and health insurance, said the poverty rate hit 14.3 percent in 2009, the third consecutive annual increase and the highest percentage rate since 1994. The number means that one in seven Americans was classified as poor in 2009.

The 43.6 million Americans living in poverty in 2009, up from 39.8 million in 2008 and 37.2 million in 2007, was the most since the agency began compiling statistics a half-century ago. While the poverty levels spiked, median U.S. household income stayed constant at $49,777, statistically the same as the previous year.

But the overall report - which showed increases in child and adult poverty, as well as a rise in the number of Americans without health insurance - shows “just how tough 2009 was,” President Obama said in remarks to reporters Thursday.

The poverty rate has been ticking up steadily: It was 12.5 percent in 2007 and 13.2 percent in 2008, according to Census Bureau figures.

The White House and some anti-poverty groups credited Mr. Obama’s policies with staving off even grimmer numbers.

The $814 billion economic stimulus package “made a real difference” by saving or creating as many as 3.3 million jobs, Jared Bernstein, chief economic adviser to the vice president, wrote in the White House blog yesterday.

As a result, the 2009 poverty increase was “less than expected,” middle-class incomes “held steady” and full-time workers’ median earnings went up 2 percent, Mr. Bernstein said.

But some Republican and conservative critics said the poverty numbers showed the flaws in Mr. Obama’s approach to fighting the economic downturn.

“What poor Americans - like all other Americans - need are jobs, not more government benefits,” said Rep. John Linder, Georgia Republican and ranking member of a House subcommittee that oversees welfare programs. Congress should work on “removing impediments to private-sector job creation” instead of “providing more government stimulus,” he said.

At the Heritage Foundation think tank, analyst Robert Rector tied the rise in poverty levels to social factors, notably “the collapse of marriage.”

“Single-mother families are almost five times more likely to be poor than married couples with children,” Mr. Rector said. Nearly all unwed fathers are employed, and most earn enough to lift mother and child from poverty, he said, but tragically, “few unwed parents marry.”

His suggestions: Reduce marriage penalties in welfare programs and step up education about the benefits of marriage, especially in lower-income communities.

Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, praised the administration’s approach. He said that expansion of non-cash benefits, such as nutrition programs and refundable tax credits also helped ease the pain from the struggling economy.

These benefits are not counted in the official poverty measure, but if they were, they would have lifted between 3.6 million and 4.2 million people out of poverty, he said. Moreover, since many of these policies have been maintained in 2010, “we are certainly going to see significant mitigation effect again in 2010,” he said.

Mississippi had the highest share of poor people, at 23.1 percent, according to rough calculations by the Census Bureau. It was followed by Arizona, New Mexico, Arkansas and Georgia. On the other end of the scale, New Hampshire had the lowest share, at 7.8 percent.

Rep. Barbara Lee, California Democrat and co-chairwoman of the Out of Poverty Caucus on Capitol Hill, said it was “critical that Congress and the entire nation recommit to the fight against poverty” and not attempt to “balance our budgets on the backs of the poor” by cutting anti-poverty programs.

According to census data, the child poverty rate rose in 2009 to 20.7 percent, up from 19 percent in 2008.

The adult poverty rate also rose, from 11.7 percent to 12.9 percent, but fell among seniors, from 9.7 percent to 8.9 percent.

The census report also found that the number of people without health insurance rose from 46.3 million in 2008 to 50.7 million in 2009. This meant 16.7 percent of Americans didn’t have health insurance last year, compared with 15.4 percent in 2008.

Virtually the entire increase was among people ages 18 to 64, who are ineligible for children’s health programs or Medicare for seniors, but who were likely to have lost the health insurance coverage from their jobs if they were laid off.

“The conclusion is inescapable that had the health reform law been in effect in 2009, the number of people without health insurance would have risen far less,” Mr. Greenstein said.

“This is exactly why full implementation of health reform is so urgently needed,” added Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

Robert Moffit, a senior analyst at the Heritage Foundation, countered that the health care plan passed in March should not be expected to bring universal health care coverage. Even with Mr. Obama’s health care overhaul fully implemented, an estimated 23 million Americans “will still be without coverage,” he said.

c This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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