Another 2.6 million people slipped into poverty in the United States last year, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday, and the number of Americans living below the official poverty line, 46.2 million people, was the highest number in the 52 years the bureau has been publishing figures on it.
The number of poor Americans in 2010 was the largest in the 52 years that the Census Bureau has been publishing poverty estimates, the report said, while the poverty rate was the highest since 1993.
Economists pointed to a telling statistic: It was the first time since the Great Depression that median household income, adjusted for inflation, had not risen over such a long period, said Lawrence Katz, an economics professor at Harvard.
Even the period of economic growth that came before the recession did little for the middle and bottom wage earners.
Arloc Sherman, a senior researcher at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said that the period from 2001 to 2007 was the first recovery on record where the level of poverty was deeper, and median income of working-age people was lower, at the end than at the beginning
“This is truly a lost decade,” Mr. Katz said. “We think of America as a place where every generation is doing better, but we’re looking at a period when the median family is in worse shape than it was in the late 1990s.”
The specter of economic deterioration also afflicted working Americans who saw their median income decline 2.3 percent to an annual $49,445.
The past decade was also marked by a growing gap between the very top and very bottom of the income ladder. Median household income for the bottom tenth of the income spectrum fell by 12 percent from a peak in 1999, while the top 90th percentile dropped by just 1.5 percent.
Overall, median household income adjusted for inflation declined by 2.3 percent in 2010 from the previous year, to $49,445. That was 7 percent less than the peak of $53,252 in 1999. Part of the income decline over time is because of the smaller size of the American family.
About 1.5 million fewer Americans were covered by employer-sponsored health insurance plans, while the number of people covered by government health insurance increased by nearly 2 million.
The recession has continued pushing 25-to-34-year-olds to move in with family and friends to save money. Of that group, nearly half were living below the poverty line, when their parents’ incomes were excluded. The poverty level for a single person under the age of 65 was $11,344.
“We’re risking a new underclass,” said Timothy Smeeding, director of the Institute for Research and Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
“Young, less-educated adults, mainly men, can’t support their children and form stable families because they are jobless,” he added.
All told, the number of Americans with no health insurance hovered at 49.9 million, up slightly from 49 million in 2010.
Minorities were hit hardest. Blacks experienced the highest poverty rate, at 27 percent, up from 25 percent in 2009, and Hispanics rose to 26 percent from 25 percent. For whites, 9.9 percent lived in poverty, up from 9.4 percent in 2009. Asians were unchanged at 12.1 percent.
The report comes as President Obama gears up to try to pass a jobs bill, and analysts said the bleak numbers could help him make his case for urgency. But they could also be used against him by Republican opponents seeking to highlight economic shortcomings on his watch.
“This is one more piece of bad news on the economy,” said Ron Haskins, a director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution. “This will be another cross to bear by the administration.”
Joblessness was the main culprit pushing more Americans into poverty, economists said.
Last year, about 48 million people ages 18 to 64 did not work even one week out of the year, up from 45 million in 2009, said Trudi Renwick, a Census official.
The United States has long had one of the highest poverty rates in the developed world. Among 34 countries tracked by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, only Chile, Israel and Mexico have higher rates of poverty. [via Reuters and The New York Times]