Post-recession poverty persists through 2012

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The economic recovery from the Great Recession is more like a continuing hangover.

Poverty persisted through 2012 at 15 percent, with 46.5 million people living below the poverty level as median income rose by just $17 a year, to $51,017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's annual release of data on income, poverty and health insurance.

"For the second consecutive year, neither the poverty rate nor the number of people in poverty was statistically different," said David S. Johnson, the bureau's chief of the social, economic and housing statistics division.

"The recovery has pretty much helped people at the top and not helped people in the middle or people at the bottom," said Elise Gould, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based policy group.

For 2012, the poverty level was defined as $23,283 for a family with two adults and two children.

While the overall poverty rate sits at 15 percent, the level is higher for children.

The Census Bureau reported 21.8 percent, or more than a fifth, of children under the age of 18 are living in poverty. That's less than 2 percentage points lower than it was in the early 1960s when U.S. President Lyndon Johnson declared the War on Poverty.

The elderly are doing better than they did during Johnson's administration. Social Security and defined pensions for older Americans have driven the poverty rate down in that segment of population from 30 percent in the 1960s to 9.1 percent last year.

In 2012, 3 million more people lived in poverty than in 2009, the official end of the recession when 14.3 percent of Americans were counted as poor.

The Census Bureau admits that the measure of poverty is a crude one that counts income and family size. Other factors can also play a role, such as whether a family rents or owns a home and if that home is mortgaged or owned free and clear. Additional factors -- including out-of-pocket medical expenses; work expenses, such as parking and commuting costs; and taxes -- can drive a family above the poverty level further down economically in ways that are not officially measured.

Programs that help bring families above the poverty line include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as food stamps; unemployment insurance; Social Security; and even the federal school lunch program. The effect of all of those factors will not be available from the Census Bureau until October. When they were taken into account for 2011, the poverty rate climbed from 15.1 percent to 16.1 percent.

"If you use the median income measures that other nations use, it's probably close to 19 percent," said Stephen Pimpare, an adjunct professor at Columbia University in New York City and the author of "A people's history of poverty in America."

The Census report did show a benefit of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, know as Obamacare: a higher percentage of young adults are insured than used to be.

In 2009, about 32 percent of those aged 19 to 25 did not have insurance. After the ACA was adopted, those young people gained the right to remain on their parents' health insurance. Last year, 27 percent did not have insurance, statistically the same as in 2011.

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Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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