The United States in 2009 recorded the highest number of people living in poverty—43.6 million— and the highest number of uninsured—50.7 million—in the nation’s history. Real income is down for most households, too. In every case, just one income group has been spared the effects of the last two years’ downturn (and has, in fact, improved its lot): the elderly.
The number of people living in poverty has increased by nearly 4 million in one year. The number of children living in poverty, 15.5 million, is also the highest recorded. The proportion of people living in poverty is still 8.1 percentage points lower than in 1959, the first year for which poverty estimates are available, but at 14.3 percent in 2009, that rate rose sharply from 13.2 percent, and is the highest rate since 1994.
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For the first time in 22 years, the number of people with health insurance actually decreased by 1.5 million. The proportion of people without health insurance rose from 15.4 percent in 2008 to 16.7 in 2009. Had government insurance not stepped in to pick up coverage for those losing it in the private sector, the number of people without insurance would have been significantly higher. Only two groups did not suffer losses in coverage: children and the elderly. But one in 10 children in the United States are still without insurance. The number of elderly without health insurance is almost statistically insignificant: 1.8 percent.
The numbers, released today by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Commerce, reflect the depth of the economic downturn that began in 2007, and suggest that, as the unemployment and foreclosure rates have continued to rise in 2009 and 2010, the worst has not yet been recorded. But Americans and others living in the United States are likely living it. The numbers, contrasting with the largest proportionate concentration of wealth among the nation’s richest households since the 1920s, place the United States at the bottom of industrial nations’ poverty and inequality indicators.
The report’s bleakness is affects all three areas under review: poverty, health insurance and household income.
Median household income in 2009 fell 0.7 percent, to $49,777. When looked at category by category, the numbers are worse. Real median income actually declined 1.8 percent for family households. Married couples saw their income fall by 1.2 percent. Single mothers saw their income fall 1.1 percent, and single fathers, 1.9 percent.
Again, the only group that was not affected by the downturn—and did, in fact, benefit between 2008 and 2009—is the elderly. Households led by those 65 and over saw their real, inflation-adjusted median income rise by a relatively staggering 5.8 percent.
Per capita income, too, fell overall by 1.2 percent. Overall, median household income in 2009 was lower than it has been, even after adjusting for inflation, since the mid-1990s. That means households have not improved their standard of living since then, and have lost ground on a peak achieved toward the end of the Clinton years. The trend is down.
A closer analysis of the figures reveals even more worrisome trends. As the Washington Post’s Ezra Kline notes, “We’ve seen a big jump in the poverty rate in the past two years, of course, but we also saw a mild increase in the years before that. Between 2001 and 2007, the poverty rate increased from 11.7 percent to 12.5 percent. But the economy grew in every one of those years. This was the first period since we began keeping records in which the economy expanded but poverty went up — usually, economic expansions bring the poverty rate down. It’s more evidence that the pre-crisis ‘normal’ was an economy that wasn’t working very well for a lot of people, even when it was growing.”
The contrast between the elderly’s relative good health, with regards to income and health insurance, and the rest of the nation’s demographic groups provides solid data to a running political irony: the nation’s most vocal cohort of discontented voters are concentrated among the elderly–the elderly who form the core of the “tea party” movement.