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More in US Lack Health Insurance


The U.S. government reports the number of Americans without health insurance grew last year, while poverty rates increased and household incomes declined.

One day after President Barack Obama told a joint session of Congress that the ranks of uninsured Americans are growing by the day, the U.S. Census Bureau provided data underscoring the extent of the problem. In an annual report, the Census Bureau said 46.3 million people lacked health insurance last year, up from 45.7 million in 2007.

Census statistician David Johnson says the rise is not a one-time phenomenon.

"The rates of coverage for both private and employment-based [health insurance] coverage have shown a downward trend for the last eight years," he said.

Last year's uninsured tally might have been worse were it not for increases in government-provided health coverage for the poor, the elderly, and disadvantaged children.

At the same time, the longest and deepest recession of the post-World War II era has eroded U.S. incomes and boosted poverty rates.

"The number of people in poverty increased by 2.6 million in 2008," said the Census Bureau's David Johnson. "And the poverty rate increased from 12.5 percent to 13.2 percent the highest poverty rate since 1997."

Johnson says virtually all categories of Americans saw income declines last year, but losses were particularly sharp for minority groups such as Hispanics. He says income gaps between rich and poor continue to expand.

"Inequality is increasing. Between 1967 and 2008, income at the 90th percentile [top earners] increased 63 percent, while income at the 10th percentile [bottom earners] increased by 32 percent," said Johnson.

But as somber as the 2008 data appear, the numbers may actually understate the severity of the current situation when it comes to health care coverage, income levels and poverty rates. That is because the economic downturn that began in late 2007 grew worse this year.

Elise Gould is a health policy researcher at Washington's Economic Policy Institute.

"These modest increases in the uninsured are only the tip of the iceberg [a partial accounting]," said Gould. "Given that the economy has deteriorated significantly since 2008, the current state of health insurance is worse than today's [Census Bureau] report shows.

Gould estimates the true number of uninsured today stands at 50 million, which would be an all-time high.

Economic indicators are also likely to be worse than last year's numbers suggest, according to Harvard University economist Lawrence Katz.

"2008 was not nearly as bad an economy as 2009," said Katz. "Thus, we are likely to see further large declines in household incomes, larger increases in poverty. We have basically seen a lost decade [economically] for the typical American family."

Most economists project an end to the recession in coming months. But many say the recovery will be slow and gradual, meaning that unemployment rates will likely remain elevated and income levels stagnant for much of next year.

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