``The fact that there is no news on poverty is bad news,'' said Bill Frey, a demographer at the University of Michigan's Population Studies Center. ``The Dow Jones is going up, but poverty is not coming down.''
The number of Americans without health insurance increased by 1.1 million in 1996, to 41.7 million. That increase was not significant enough to change the overall proportion of uninsured.
But a closer look gives cause for some concern. Children accounted for most of the increase in the number of uninsured people, with an additional 800,000 lacking coverage. The new federal budget allocates $24 billion over five years to help states expand health coverage for children.
Based on a survey of 50,000 households, the census reports are like an annual snapshot of the state of American families taken with a point-and-shoot camera instead of a telephoto lens. Some details can be fuzzy, but it is the best portrait available.
Critics say the reports understate income and overstate poverty. Many economists believe that the government's inflation measure exaggerates the true change in the cost of living. If they are right and the real inflation rate is lower, family purchasing power is greater than what the Census Bureau is reporting.
Also, the poverty rate does not take into account the effects of some major antipoverty programs, such as food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit for working families. If those and other antipoverty programs were considered, the poverty rate would drop to 10.2 percent.
Nonetheless, whichever poverty measure is used, the rate barely moved from 1995 to 1996. Susan Mayer, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, said the modern high-tech economy is inhospitable territory for low-skilled workers.
``The kind of jobs that have been driving this economic boom are not the kinds of jobs that very low-skilled people can take advantage of,'' Mayer said. ``The poverty rate has been very resistant to changes in the economy.''
A closer look at the income numbers bears that out. The Census Bureau reported that families in the lowest fifth of the income ladder, averaging $11,388, made $210 less in 1996 than in 1995.
Middle- and upper-income families fared better in 1996, with upper-income families seeing the strongest gains. Families in the upper fifth of the income ladder, averaging $125,627, saw their incomes rise by $2,647, or 2.2 percent, in 1996. Families in the middle fifth, averaging $42,467, saw an increase of $630, or 1.5 percent.
The income and poverty figures showed no statistical changes for whites, blacks and Asian Americans. The median income for Hispanics increased 5.8 percent in 1996, negating a 5.1 percent decline in 1995. The 28.4 percent poverty rate for blacks was the lowest on record, but the Census Bureau said the difference from the 1995 rate of 29.3 percent was not statistically significant.
Women continued to close the income gap with men. Median earnings for year-round, full time female workers stood at 74 percent of the median for their male counterparts - a record. But the narrowing was partly due to a drop in the earnings of men.
President Clinton said the improvement in household income for the middle class was more validation of his economic policies. ``America's middle class, no longer forgotten, is rising fast,'' he said.