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The ranks of America’s poor swelled to almost 1 in 6 people last year, reaching a new high as long-term unemployment left millions of Americans struggling and out of work. The number of uninsured edged up to 49.9 million, the biggest in more than two decades.
The Census Bureau‘s annual report released Tuesday offers a snapshot of the economic well-being of U.S. households for 2010, when joblessness hovered above 9 percent for a second year. It comes at a politically sensitive time for President Barack Obama, who has acknowledged in the midst of a re-election fight that the unemployment rate could persist at high levels through next year.
The overall poverty rate climbed to 15.1 percent, or 46.2 million, up from 14.3 percent in 2009. The official poverty level is an annual income of $22,314 for a family of four.
Reflecting the lingering impact of the recession, the U.S. poverty rate from 2007-2010 has now risen faster than any three-year period since the early 1980s, when a crippling energy crisis amid government cutbacks contributed to inflation, spiraling interest rates and unemployment.
Measured by total numbers, the 46 million now living in poverty is the largest on record dating back to when the census began tracking poverty in 1959. Based on percentages, it tied the poverty level in 1993 and was the highest since 1983.
Broken down by state, Mississippi had the highest share of poor people, at 22.7 percent, according to calculations by the Census Bureau. It was followed by Louisiana, the District of Columbia, Georgia, New Mexico and Arizona. On the other end of the scale, New Hampshire had the lowest share, at 6.6 percent.
The share of Americans without health coverage rose from 16.1 percent to 16.3 percent — or 49.9 million people — after the Census Bureau made revisions to numbers of the uninsured. That is due mostly to continued losses of employer-provided health insurance in the weakened economy.
Congress passed a health overhaul last year to deal with rising numbers of the uninsured. While the main provisions do not take effect until 2014, one aspect taking effect in late 2010 allowed young adults until age 26 to be covered under their parents’ health insurance.
Brett O’Hara, chief of the Health and Disability Statistics branch at the Census Bureau, noted that the uninsured rate for adults ages 18 to 24 declined last year — from 29.3 percent to 27.2 percent. It was the only age group which posted a decrease. “For the change in uninsured, the law change certainly could be a factor,” he said.
The median — or midpoint — household income was $49,445, down 2.3 percent from 2009.
The latest numbers, which cover Obama’s second year in office, offer political fodder for both parties as Obama seeks to push a new $447 billion plan for creating jobs and stimulating the economy. The plan includes a proposed payroll tax cut and an extension of unemployment benefits.
Obama is urging Congress to pay for the new spending largely by increasing taxes on the wealthy, which Republicans have rejected emphatically.
On Tuesday, the Census Bureau noted the impact of government safety-net programs on the poor. It estimated that new unemployment benefits passed in 2009, which gave workers up to 99 weeks of payments after a layoff, and did not run out for most people until this year, lifted 3.2 million above the poverty line. Social Security kept about 20.3 million, seniors as well as working-age adults receiving disability payments, out of poverty.