Nation & World

Upbeat U.S. census data mask economic plight

WASHINGTON — Wages for working Americans increased, the number of people without health insurance decreased and the poverty rate was essentially unchanged in 2007, according to census figures released Tuesday.

Experts cautioned, however, that the new data don't capture the effects of the economic slump that began late last year and has caused massive job losses, increased unemployment, high inflation and falling wages.

In 2007, though, median household income rose by 1.3 percent, from $49,568 in 2006 to $50,233. The portion of Americans in poverty increased slightly, from 12.3 percent to 12.5 percent. The number without health coverage fell from 47 million in 2006 to 45.7 million last year. It was the first annual decline in the uninsured population since President Bush took office in 2001.

A closer look at the numbers also reveals some troubling trends, however, including that the inflation-adjusted median income for working-age households was $1,100 lower in 2007 than it was in the recession year of 2001. Last year's poverty rate was also higher than the 11.7 percent rate in 2001.

"Never before on record has poverty been higher and median income for working-age households lower at the end of a multi-year economic expansion than in the previous recession," said Robert Greenstein, the executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal research center. "The data are now clear that for poverty and median income, this was the worst economic expansion on record."

Experts credit an increase in government-funded coverage for reducing the number of uninsured Americans. The number of people younger than 65 who are publicly insured jumped from 46.3 million to 48.6 million last year, according to Lynn Blewett, the director of the State Health Access Data Assistance Center at the University of Minnesota.

Children accounted for nearly half that increase, as the number of youngsters in government health programs grew from 22.1 million in 2006 to 23 million last year.

"Programs like SCHIP and Medicaid are lifelines for providing Americans with the health care they need, especially during times when the economy is soft and more people feel vulnerable to losing employer-sponsored health insurance," Blewett said.

Ron Pollack, the executive director of Families USA, a liberal health-advocacy group, saw irony in the growth of public coverage.

"At the very time the Bush administration tried to cut back Medicaid and twice vetoed legislation to extend children's health coverage, the public safety net cushioned the loss of employer-sponsored health coverage," Pollack said.

Most researchers and economists say federal measures are a poor tool to gauge poverty's complexity. The numbers don't factor in assistance from government anti-poverty programs, which help pull people out of poverty. Alternative poverty measures that account for these shortcomings typically deflate poverty statistics.

Devon Herrick, a health economist with the conservative Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis, said government figures on the uninsured were "somewhat overblown" because they included up to 14 million people who qualified for government coverage but weren't enrolled and nearly 18 million people who earned more than $50,000 and chose to forgo coverage.

He also said the uninsured figures provided only a "snapshot" because respondents are questioned only when the survey is taken, rather than over a year. A 2004 census report found that three-fourths of uninsured people get coverage within a year, Herrick said.

Median household income — the level at which half of U.S. households earn more and half less — increased for the third straight year. Men who worked full time saw their median earnings increase nearly 4 percent to $45,113. Median income for full-time working women rose by 5 percent to $35,102.

Median incomes for black and Hispanic households increased for the first time since 1999, but black households still had the lowest median income, at $33,916. They were followed by Hispanics at $38,678.

Asian households had the highest median income — $66,103 — while non-Hispanic whites came in at $54,920.

The poverty rate increased by only a small fraction; 816,000 more people lived in poverty in 2007 than in 2006. But the rate and number of children in poverty increased from 17.4 percent, or 12.8 million, in 2006 to 18 percent and 13.3 million last year.

Nationally, children account for nearly 36 percent of Americans in poverty, though they make up only about 25 percent of the population.

Other findings include:

  • Full-time working women earned 78 percent of what full-time working men earned in 2007, an all-time high.
  • The income of foreign-born households headed by noncitizens dropped 7.3 percent to $37,637 after increasing 4.1 percent in 2006.
  • Last year's poverty rate for the South was 14.2 percent. It was 11.4 percent in the Northeast, 11.1 percent in the Midwest and 12 percent in the West. All were statistically unchanged from 2006.

    The new national 2007 Census data on income, poverty and health insurance