Household income, poverty hold steady, number of uninsured declines

Tony PughMcClatchy Washington Bureau

The nation’s elevated poverty rate and stagnant median household income showed no meaningful changes in 2012, while the number and percentage of Americans without health insurance declined slightly from 2011, due mainly to higher Medicare rolls, according to a new U.S. Census Bureau report Tuesday.

Last year marked the first time in five years that there was neither a decrease in median household income nor an increase in the percent of Americans in poverty, said David Johnson, the chief of the Census Bureau’s social, economic and housing statistics division. It was also the first time since 1992 that the annual changes in income and poverty weren’t statistically significant.

Those findings show that the economic and social well-being of Americans continued to stabilize in 2012 after several years of tumultuous decline following the Great Recession, which began in late 2007 and lasted until mid-2009.

But families still have a way to go to recapture even the modest economic strength of the weak pre-recession labor market.

Median household income – the amount at which half the country earns less and the other half earns more – was $51,017 last year. That’s not statistically different from the 2011 median of $51,100, but it does halt two straight years of decline.

For working-age households headed by a person younger than 65, the median income increased by 1 percent, from $56,802 in 2011 to $57,353 last year. But that slight uptick hardly makes up for the 9.3 percent decline – a loss of $5,815 – among working-age households from 2007 to 2011.

From 2000 to 2012, median income for these non-elderly households fell by $7,490, or 11.6 percent.

The numbers reflect a sluggish job market and long-term wage stagnation, said Lawrence Mishel, the president of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal economic research center.

“We’re not seeing much growth in jobs,” he said. “We’re not seeing much growth in wages for anybody, college graduates or those without a college degree. It shouldn’t be surprising that people’s incomes are going nowhere if they’re not working more, having more jobs or getting increases in their weekly paychecks.”

The national poverty rate remained at 15 percent last year, according to the census report, with 46.5 million people earning at or below the federal poverty line of $11,170 for an individual and $23,050 for a family of four. It was the second year in a row that the number of people in poverty and the poverty rate showed no meaningful change. The poverty rate was 12.5 percent in 2007, the year before the economy tanked.

The number and percentage of Americans without health insurance fell from 48.6 million, or 15.7 percent, in 2011, to 48 million, or 15.4 percent, in 2012, the census report found. The decline was driven mainly by an increase of nearly 2 million people with Medicare coverage as the first wave of aging baby boomers, born from 1946 to 1964, became eligible for the program.

Medicare enrollment jumped from 46.9 million in 2011 to nearly 48.9 million in 2012.

The census report comes at a time that each of the three measurements – poverty, health insurance coverage and income – is a hot-button issue across the country.

States are debating whether to cover more uninsured people through Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act. At least 10 states and several cities are considering increases to their minimum wages as new research from the University of Chicago shows that a record 8.4 percent of Americans now consider themselves “lower class.”

Meanwhile, Republicans in the House of Representatives want to cut food stamp funding by $40 billion, despite a government report earlier this month that showed 17.6 million households had trouble putting enough food on the table last year.

The report found that Asians had the highest median household income, at $68,600, while non-Hispanic whites were next, at $57,000. Hispanics, who can be of any race, followed at $39,000, while the median income for African-Americans was $33,300. The amounts for each group were lower than their pre-recession levels, the Census Bureau’s Johnson said.

The median income for men was $49,400, compared with $37,800 for women, in 2012. Both amounts are virtually unchanged from 2011.

Poverty rates continued to show wide disparities among racial and ethnic groups. African-Americans and Hispanics had poverty rates of 27.2 percent and 25.6 percent, respectively, in 2012. The rate for Asians was 11.7 percent, and it was 9.7 percent for non-Hispanic whites. All those rates were about the same in 2011, Johnson said.

For those under 18, the poverty rate was 21.8 percent.

Income inequality – the growing concentration of total income at the upper end of the economic ladder – showed no appreciable change from 2011 to 2012. But it’s grown substantially since 1999, the year that household income peaked before the 2001 recession.

The income cutoff for the 10 percent of households with the lowest incomes declined by 14.2 percent from 1999 to 2012, the report showed. But the cutoff amount for the 10 percent of households with the highest incomes declined by only 1.7 percent over the same period.

By Tony Pugh
McClatchy Washington Bureau