Washington The ranks of the working-age poor climbed to the highest level since the 1960s as the recession threw millions of people out of work last year, leaving one in seven Americans in poverty.
The overall poverty rate climbed to 14.3 percent, or 43.6 million people, the Census Bureau said Thursday in its annual report on the economic well-being of U.S. households. The poverty rate increased from 13.2 percent, or 39.8 million people, in 2008.
The 2009 poverty level is $21,954 for a family of four.
In Kansas, there are 374,000 people living in poverty, an 8.1 percent increase over 2008.
The share of Americans without health coverage rose from 15.4 percent to 16.7 percent — or 50.7 million people — mostly because of the loss of employer-provided health insurance during the recession. Congress passed a health overhaul this year to address the rising numbers of uninsured people, but its main provisions will not take effect until 2014.
The poverty-rate increase doesn’t surprise leaders of Lawrence social service agencies, food banks and clinics that are seeing the economic effects first-hand.
Nikki King is executive director of Health Care Access, a clinic that serves low-income and uninsured Douglas County residents.
She said the demand for its services is growing. The wait for an appointment has grown from nine weeks to 11 weeks; the next available appointment is Dec. 7. The few appointments that are left open daily for acute care are filled within 10 minutes of turning on the phone lines.
She believes the growth is due to a combination of layoffs and loss of employer-provided health insurance.
In 2009, the clinic provided 3,312 visits in the clinic and another 752 referrals to specialists. It served 1,431 individuals.
King said the clinic is on track to match those numbers this year.
A record number of Douglas County residents are tapping into the Just Food bank in Lawrence.
In August, the bank served 689 households, representing 1,984 individuals. On Monday, its mobile food pantry served 511 individuals.
“When they say people in poverty, that’s at the 100 percent level of poverty, which is almost destitute,” said Carolyn Ward, interim coordinator of the food bank. “Most social service agencies help people up to 200 percent of poverty. So, these numbers don’t even factor in the people who are struggling.”
In a statement, President Barack Obama called 2009 a tough year for working families but said it could have been worse.
“Because of the Recovery Act and many other programs providing tax relief and income support to a majority of working families — and especially those most in need — millions of Americans were kept out of poverty last year,” Obama said.
The new figures come at a politically sensitive time, just weeks before the Nov. 2 congressional elections, when voters restive about high unemployment and the slow pace of economic improvement will decide whether to keep Democrats in power in the House and Senate or turn to Republicans.
The 14.3 percent poverty rate, which covers all ages, was the highest since 1994. It was lower than predicted by many demographers who were bracing for a record gain based on last year’s skyrocketing unemployment. Many had expected a range of 14.7 percent to 15 percent.
Broken down by state, Mississippi had the highest share of poor people, at 23.1 percent, according to rough calculations by the Census Bureau. It was followed by Arizona, New Mexico, Arkansas and Georgia. On the other end of the scale, New Hampshire had the lowest share, at 7.8 percent.
Analysts said the full blow of lost incomes was cushioned somewhat by increases in Social Security payments in 2009 as well as federal expansions of unemployment insurance, which rose substantially under the economic stimulus program. With the additional unemployment benefits, workers were eligible for extensions that gave them up to 99 weeks of payments after a layoff.
David Johnson, the chief of the Census Bureau’s household economics division, estimated that expanded unemployment benefits helped keep 3.3 million people out of poverty last year.
The 2009 poverty level was set at $21,954 for a family of four, based on an official government calculation that includes only cash income, before tax deductions. It excludes capital gains or accumulated wealth as well as noncash aid such as food stamps. An additional 7.8 million people would have been counted above the poverty line if food stamps and tax credits were included as income.