More Americans are living in poverty and without health insurance than ever before, according to Census Bureau data released today, with poverty rates at the highest percentage point since 1994 and the number of uninsured at a peak since the agency began collecting data on health insurance coverage in 1987.
In contrast, the bureau's survey found the nation's median income for 2009 was not statistically different from 2008, a surprise in the midst of a tough economic recession. Median household income fell by over 4 percent between the $51,965 in 2007 and $49,777 in 2009..
The number of uninsured in America reached 50.7 million people in 2009, compared to 46.3 million in 2008. That was an increase from 15.4 percent of the population in 2008 to 16.7 percent in 2009.
David Johnson, a senior Census Bureau official, said that while the agency did not analyze why coverage dropped significantly over the last year, the data showed that a loss of coverage could be tied to increasing number of unemployed people losing employer coverage.
The data also found that the majority of the uninsured in America have a household income under $25,000. The number of uninsured at this income level, 26.6 percent of the country, grew 2 percentage points since 2008.
The middle class was not immune, either. Of the 4.3 newly uninsured, half have incomes of more than $50,000.
In response to the data, President Obama said it showed that the economic stimulus bill and tax relief programs kept millions of Americans out of poverty despite being unemployed. He highlighted the impact of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, one of the first programs he signed into law, in protecting children from "economic distress."
The census survey found that the number of uninsured children in 2009 was not statistically different from the previous year.
Obama also said the nearly six-month-old health overhaul law would mirror the success of the CHIP program.
"The Affordable Care Act will build on that success by expanding health insurance coverage to more families," Obama said in a statement released by the White House. "Even before the recession hit, middle-class incomes had been stagnant and the number of people living in poverty in America was unacceptably high, and today's numbers make it clear that our work is just beginning."
Health overhaul advocates argued that the Census figures were proof that the new healthcare law needed full implementation to increase the number of Americans with health insurance.
"The health reform law will make a difference for tens of millions of people without insurance who will finally be able to afford quality health coverage," House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark, D-Calif., said in a written statement. "Republicans who want to repeal health reform have a message for them -- you're on your own."
Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, echoed Stark's comments, saying, "The record number of uninsured Americans underscores the need to fully implement every single lifesaving provision included in the new health reform law."
Ron Pollack, who heads the advocacy group Families USA, said the survey showed the "heroic role" that Medicaid and the State Children Health Insurance Program played in a time of economic recession.
"They are serving the purpose for which they were created," said Pollack, who added that "the number of people getting safety net coverage in the past year is noteworthy." Pollack said the data also highlighted the connection between Americans losing their jobs and subsequently losing health insurance coverage, and the positive impact the health overhaul law could have on the bleak number of uninsured Americans. "Help is on the way," Pollack said.
But not everyone believes the record number of uninsured is cause for concern.
The Employment Policies Institute highlighted a 2009 study from former CBO Director June O'Neill that found 43 percent of Americans ages 18 to 64 with incomes over two times the poverty level could afford health insurance, leading researchers to conclude they were "voluntarily" uninsured.
"Millions of the country's uninsured are uninsured by choice," said Michael Saltsman, a research fellow at EPI.
[Updated 6 p.m. Sept.16, 2010]
This article appears in the Sep. 18, 2010, edition of National Journal Daily.