1 in 7 Americans Lived in Poverty in 2009, New Census Data Show

BY Lea Winerman  September 16, 2010 at 1:30 PM EDT

Updated 3:48 p.m. ET

Driven by the recession, the percentage of Americans who live in poverty and the percentage of those who live without health insurance both rose in 2009, according to data released Thursday by the Census Bureau.

About one in seven Americans — 14.3 percent, or 43.6 million people — lived in poverty in 2009, up from 13.2 percent in 2008. That’s the highest percentage of Americans living below the poverty line since 1994. The poverty level was $22,050 for a family of four in 2009.

At the same time, 16.7 percent of Americans were uninsured in 2009, up from 15.4 percent in 2008. That jump pushed the number of people without health insurance in the U.S. above 50 million for the first time.

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The report provides a new snapshot of the impact of the three-year-long economic downturn. The increases in poverty and the uninsured rate come as the recession has put increasing numbers of people out of work for three years in a row — the unemployment rate hit 9.3 percent in 2009.

Median household income in 2009 was $49,777 — 4.2 percent lower than when the recession began in 2007. David Johnson, chief of the Census Bureau’s Housing and Household Economics Division, said that the income decline is similar to that seen in the last two recessions, in 1990-1991 and in 2001.

Overall, the number of people employed in full-time, year-round work has fallen by 4.7 million since 2008 and by 9.3 million since 2007.

Many of those people have lost their health insurance along with their jobs. In fact, for the first time since the government began collecting comparable data in 1987, the actual number — not just the percentage — of people with health insurance has fallen in the United States. It dropped from 255.1 million in 2008 to 253.6 million in 2009.

“In a word, this is devastating,” Jonathan Oberlander, a professor of social medicine and health policy at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, told MSNBC.

The drop is tied to the increase in the unemployment rate, says Sara Collins, vice president for affordable health insurance at the Commonwealth Fund.

“We have really high unemployment rates, and so people don’t have jobs that have benefits,” she says. “That’s really what’s behind it.”

Illustrating that point, the percentage of people covered by employer-based health insurance dropped from 58.5 percent in 2008 to 55.8 percent in 2009 — that’s the lowest percentage covered by employer-sponsored insurance since the government began reporting the statistic in 1987. Meanwhile, the percentage of people covered by government health insurance, such as Medicaid, Medicare and CHIP, increased from 29 percent to 30.6 percent. But that increase was not enough to cancel out the loss in private insurance coverage.

The rising poverty and uninsured rates have not hit all demographic groups equally. Poverty rates increased for children from 19 percent to 20.7 percent, and for adults ages 18 to 64 from 11.7 percent to 12.9 percent. But for people over age 65, the poverty rate actually declined from 9.7 percent to 8.9 percent, likely because that age group receives social security benefits.

The uninsured rate also differed by age group. For adults between age 18 and 65, the uninsured rate increased from 20.3 percent to 22.3 percent. But it remained stable for children, at about 10 percent. That’s because more children can be covered by the government insurance programs Medicaid and CHIP.

“More of them have a place to go when they lose coverage through their parents’ job,” Collins says.

Among the Census Bureau’s other findings:

  • The poverty rate rose for all racial groups in 2009 except Asians. The rates were 25.8 percent among Blacks, 25.3 percent among Hispanics, 12.5 percent among Asians and 9.4 percent among non-Hispanic Whites.

  • More families have “doubled up” in response to the recession, moving into multifamily households to save money. The number of multifamily households has increased by 1.6 million in the past two years, a jump of 11.6 percent.

We’ll have more on the new poverty and uninsured numbers on Thursday’s NewsHour.