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New Census data for 2008, the first full year of this recession, show just how bad our national economic stumble has been and add new urgency to policymakers’ efforts to protect the fragile recovery.
The national poverty rate — an income of $22,025 or less for a family of four — rose to 13.2 percent, up from 12.5 percent the year before and the highest level in 11 years. In 2007, the recession pushed 2.6 million more Americans into the ranks of the poor, bringing the total to 39.8 million.
The data have implications for the health-care debate. The percentage of Americans without health insurance remained steady at roughly 15.4 percent. The increase in adults without health insurance, 20.3 percent, was offset by a drop in children without insurance, now around 9.9 percent thanks to government programs.
Over the past 10 years, the percentage of Americans insured through government programs — Medicare, S-CHIP, the military — has risen from 24.5 percent to 29 percent, meaning that for a substantial number of people the debate over the merits of government-run insurance is moot.
Income distribution in this country remains wildly uneven. The top 5 percent of earners get about 20 percent of all household income while the bottom 20 percent get about 5 percent. Half of the national income goes to one fifth of the households.
One distressing number is the inflation-adjusted fall in the median household income to $50,303, down 3.6 percent from 2007, the steepest year-to-year drop in 40 years and enough to wipe out a decade’s worth of gains. We may be a long time getting back to where we were.
The 3.6 percent hit in household income we’ve taken in this recession is not — as yet — as bad as the 6 percent dent in income in the 1980-82 recession. But with unemployment expected to rise through the end of the year, analysts are agreed about what these same indices will be like for 2009 — even worse.