Ranks of Poor, Uninsured Rose in 2003
By GENARO C. ARMAS, Associated Press Writer
It was the third straight annual increase for both categories. While not unexpected, it was a double dose of bad economic news during a tight re-election campaign for President Bush (news - web sites).
Approximately 35.8 million people lived below the poverty line in 2003, or about 12.5 percent of the population, according to the bureau. That was up from 34.5 million, or 12.1 percent in 2002.
The rise was more dramatic for children. There were 12.9 million living in poverty last year, or 17.6 percent of the under-18 population. That was an increase of about 800,000 from 2002, when 16.7 percent of all children were in poverty.
The Census Bureau's definition of poverty varies by the size of the household. For instance, the threshold for a family of four was $18,810, while for two people it was $12,015.
Nearly 45 million people lacked health insurance, or 15.6 percent of the population. That was up from 43.5 million in 2002, or 15.2 percent, but was a smaller increase than in the two previous years.
Uninsured rates for children, though, were relatively stable at 11.4 percent, likely the result of recent expansions of coverage in government programs covering the poor and children, such as the state Children's Health Insurance Program, analysts said.
Meanwhile, the median household income, when adjusted for inflation, remained basically flat last year at $43,318. Whites, blacks and Asians saw no noticeable change, but income fell 2.6 percent for Hispanics to nearly $33,000. Asians had the highest income at over $55,000, while whites made $47,800 and blacks nearly $30,000.
Census Bureau analyst Dan Weinberg said the results were typical of a post-recession period. He said the increase in people without insurance was due to the uncertain job picture.
"Certainly the long-term trend is firms offering less generous (benefit) plans, and as people lose jobs they tend to lose health insurance coverage," he said.
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (news - web sites) seized on the numbers as evidence the Bush administration's economic policies have failed. During the years Bush has been in office, 5.2 million people have lost health insurance and 4.3 million have fallen into poverty, he said.
Bush administration officials were quick to counter that the data didn't reflect more recent gains in the economy in the first half of 2004 and left some of the blame on Congress. Health and Human Services (news - web sites) Secretary Tommy Thompson said Bush was focusing on proposals that would reduce the costs of health insurance for businesses.
"The big failure is not what is happening in the administration," Thompson said. "Individuals in the Senate have failed to adopt the president's health care plan."
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, noted that while more people lost insurance, the number of Americans who had coverage grew by 1 million last year. Overall, 243 million people had insurance in 2003.
"The bottom line is this: More people in America have health coverage today than at any time in our nation's history and I think that's a fact worth noting, but we can always do more," Barton said.
Even before release of the data, some Democrats claimed the Bush administration was trying to play down bad news by releasing the reports a month earlier than usual. The reports normally come out separately in late September — one on poverty and income, the other on insurance.
Census Director Louis Kincannon — a Bush appointee — denied politics played any role in moving up the release date. The move, announced earlier this year, was done to coordinate the numbers with the release of other data.
Official national poverty estimates, as well as most government data on income and health insurance, come from the bureau's Current Population Survey.
This year the bureau is simultaneously releasing data from the broader American Community Survey, which also includes income and poverty numbers but cannot be statistically compared with the other survey.
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Census Bureau: http://www.census.gov/