Poverty stats show the damage

Line chart shows the recession has pushed a record number of Americans into poverty, according to census data released Thursday.
By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2010

In the second year of a brutal recession, the ranks of the American poor soared to their highest level in half a century and millions more are barely avoiding falling below the poverty line, the Census Bureau reported Thursday.

About 44 million Americans - one in seven - lived last year in homes in which the income was below the poverty level, which is about $22,000 for a family of four. That is the largest number of people since the census began tracking poverty 51 years ago.

The snapshot captured by the census for 2009, the first year of the Obama presidency, shows an America in the throes of economic upheaval.

Since 2007, the year before the recession kicked into gear, the country has almost 4 million fewer wage-earners. There are more children growing up poor. And for the first time since the government began tracking health insurance in 1987, the number of people who have health coverage declined, as people lost jobs with health benefits or employers stopped offering it.

With midterm elections less than two months away, the statistics bare the reality fueling much of the anger toward Washington.

In the Washington region, Virginia's poverty rate rose the most, to 10.5 percent from 8.6 percent. Maryland's edged up half a percentage point to 9 percent. The District's rate was the highest, but it declined from 18 percent to 17 percent.

Although the recession's impact was broad-based, there were disparities among groups. The official poverty rate increased for all races and ethnicities except Asians, who continued to have the highest median household income. More working-age adults lived in poverty, while the number of poor people 65 or older fell, largely as a result of increases in Social Security payments.

More than 51 million Americans lack health insurance, the census reported, and a greater-than-ever percentage of those who do have insurance are getting it from the government.

Scholars, nonprofit groups that work with the poor and President Obama all expressed concern about the gloomy picture.

Obama said the numbers could have been much worse were it not for government assistance.

"Because of the Recovery Act and many other programs providing tax relief and income support to a majority of working families - and especially those most in need - millions of Americans were kept out of poverty last year," he said in a statement.

Many conservatives, however, laid the blame on government programs that don't work.

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