U.S. poverty rate remains high

Posted: September 14, 2012

The number of people living in poverty in America last year remained stalled at the same record high level as in 2010, newly released government figures show.

In addition, real median household income declined by 1.5 percent between 2010 and 2011 to $50,054.

At the same time, the number of people without health-insurance coverage fell from 50 million to 48.6 million during the year.

The figures, released Wednesday, come from a U.S. Census Bureau report.

According to the report, 46.2 million Americans were living in poverty in 2011, a poverty rate of 15 percent. The same number was living in poverty in 2010 - more Americans than at any time since poverty levels were first published 53 years ago.

The poverty rate in 2010 was listed as 15.1 percent, a number statistically indistinct from the 2011 rate, census officials said. The federal poverty level for a family of four was $22,811 in 2011 (it's $23,050 today).

"The take-away is that the number of people living in poverty continues to be appallingly high," said Julie Zaebst, policy manager with the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. "This despite the economy being in recovery."

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that 50.1 million Americans lived in households struggling with hunger in 2011, up from 48.8 million in 2010.

Zaebst added that there's a "real disconnect" in America, which has a healthy stock market at the same time that a large portion of the populace is entrenched in poverty.

That disparity is reflected in the inequality captured in the census report, economists said.

All but the top 5 percent of American earners saw declines in their incomes, according to the report. In fact, noted Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in Washington, "the prerecession income of the top 5 percent has been fully restored. And inequality will increase."

Poverty in America is being exacerbated by high levels of unemployment, along with "a proliferation of low-wage jobs and the number of single mothers in the labor market who can't earn enough," said Peter Edelman, faculty director of the Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy at Georgetown University.

James Ford is one of the newly poor who are suffering in America. Laid off last year from a company that provided food service to museums in the area, Ford, 49 of North Philadelphia, is a divorced father of four grown children who quickly descended from the working class into a low-income existence.

Ford receives unemployment benefits, and he and his fiancée, who is self-employed, bring in $1,200 a month. That puts them around $1,000 below the poverty line for a family of two.

"It's real difficult," Ford said. "I have no health insurance and have to pay for my medicine for blood pressure and rheumatoid arthritis."

The census report also showed that the federal safety net was working.

About four million people would have been in poverty in 2011 if not for food stamps, according to census figures.

Not included in the report are the so-called invisible poor, who do not meet federal poverty guidelines but who struggle anyway, according to Val Traore, CEO of the Food Bank of South Jersey: "They are working and make too much to qualify for assistance, yet not enough to put food on the table."

In what some called an unexpected change, fewer Americans were uninsured in 2011. Though employer-sponsored health insurance has declined, government insurance - the state Children's Health Insurance Program, Medicaid, and Medicare - has increased, according to the EPI.

In addition, the census reported young adults 19 to 25 are registering increases in insurance. Experts attribute that to the Affordable Care Act - so-called Obamacare - which allows young adults to be covered by their parents' insurance.

"Government insurance and heath-care reform account" for the increase in people with health insurance, an EPI analyst said.

Taking a critical view of the report, the conservative Heritage Foundation issued reports saying that a "massive welfare state" established in America "discourages work and penalizes marriage," contributing to poverty.

The report also said that "Obamacare encourages young adults to enroll in dependent coverage and drop their own coverage, causes employers to stop offering coverage, and will likely increase premiums."

In a report due out next week, the Census Bureau will release more specific poverty figures for cities, counties, and states. Census officials said they produced state-level poverty data in the current report but recommended that reporters "wait for much more detailed" data next week.


Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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