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Poverty Rate Up 3rd Year In a Row

More Also Lack Health Coverage

By Ceci Connolly and Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 27, 2004; Page A01

The number of Americans living in poverty or lacking health insurance rose for the third straight year in 2003, the Census Bureau announced yesterday, reflecting a job market that failed to match otherwise strong economic growth.

Overall, the median household income remained stagnant at $43,318, while the national poverty rate rose to 12.5 percent -- 35.9 million people -- last year, from 12.1 percent in 2002. Hit hardest were women, who for the first time since 1999 saw their earnings decline, and children. By the end of 2003, 12.9 million children lived in poverty.

_____Rise in Poverty_____
Chart: Percentage of people living below the poverty line and without health insurance is shown.

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As expected, the number of people without health insurance grew last year, to 45 million -- an increase to 15.6 percent from 15.2 percent. White adults, primarily in the South, accounted for most of the increase. The proportion of people receiving health insurance through an employer fell to 60.4 percent, the lowest level in a decade, from 61.3 percent.

The census report provided hard numbers to anecdotal evidence that the recent recovery has missed certain regions and segments of the population. An additional 1.3 million Americans fell below the poverty line in 2003, as incomes dipped for the poorest 20 percent of the population. An additional 1.4 million became newly uninsured.

"This recovery has failed to reach those in the bottom half," said Jared Bernstein, a senior economist with the Economic Policy Institute.

As President Bush prepared to head to New York for the Republican National Convention, yesterday's data gave Democrats an opening for picking at his perceived weakness on traditional bread-and-butter issues.

"While George Bush tries to convince America's families that we're turning the corner, slogans and empty rhetoric can't hide the real story," said Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the Democratic presidential nominee. "Under George Bush's watch, America's families are falling further behind."

Bush, campaigning in New Mexico, had no comment. Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans said the census data looked "backward in time at an economy that was substantially weaker" than it is today. He predicted that the numbers will improve as Bush "continues to press extremely hard to create the right conditions and business climate" for job growth and broader health coverage.

Yet the census report stood in sharp contrast to an economy and a stock market that grew briskly in 2003, especially in the second half of the year. "The impact of a persistent jobless recovery is all over these results," Bernstein said.

With fewer people working and fewer small businesses offering health coverage, the uninsured figure is likely to remain high until the unemployment rate drops to about 4 percent, said Paul Fronstin, a senior research associate at the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

"It's not just about how many people have jobs, but it's about the kind of jobs they have," he said. "Even though people are employed, they are less likely to have access to coverage."

In this region, more people were without health coverage in 2003 than in 2002. In Virginia, the uninsured rate rose to 13.3 percent from 12.2 percent; in both Maryland and the District, it rose to 13.6 percent from 12.8 percent.

The national poverty rate declined from 1993 to 2000, when it reached a low of 11.3 percent. In the next three years, 4.3 million more people fell below the poverty line, and the median household income dropped by more than $1,500 in inflation-adjusted terms.

Locally, poverty rates rose in Virginia to 10 percent from 8.9 percent, and in Maryland to 8 percent from 7.3 percent, according to the Census Bureau's two-year averaging. In the District, it declined 0.7 percent, but, at 16.9 percent, it remained higher than the national average.

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