by GENARO C. ARMAS
WASHINGTON – The number of Americans living in poverty increased by 1.3 million last year, while the ranks of the uninsured swelled by 1.4 million, the Census Bureau reported Thursday.
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.
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.
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 $32,997. Whites had the highest income at $47,777.
Even before release of the data, some Democrats claimed the Bush administration was trying to play down bad news by releasing the reports about a month earlier than usual. They normally are released separately in late September – one report on poverty and income, the other on insurance.
Putting out the numbers at the same time and not so close to Election Day “invite charges of spinning the data for political purposes,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y.
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.
“There has been no influence or pressure from the (Bush) campaign,” Kincannon said Wednesday.
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.
The figures were sure to generate attention regardless of when they were released since they typically serve as a report card of sorts for an administration’s socio-economic policies.
Partisan debate figures to be more heated now, when the economy and health care are big issues in the tight presidential election race between Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry.
Since job growth was slow until the second half of 2003 and wages were relatively stagnant, it was likely the report would show an increase in the number of people in poverty, said Sheldon Danzinger, co-director of the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan.
William O’Hare, a researcher with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private children’s advocacy group, expected increases in the number of kids in poverty and without health insurance. He called the changes in the way data is being released “bothersome.”
“It makes me wonder whether this statistical agency is being politicized in some way,” said O’Hare, who has studied the poverty and health insurance data for over two decades.