msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 9/16/2010 1:46:06 PM ET 2010-09-16T17:46:06

The number of people living in poverty in America rose by nearly 4 million to 43.6 million in 2009 — the largest figure in the 51 years for which poverty estimates are available — the Census Bureau said Thursday.

The bureau said in a statement that the official poverty rate was 14.3 percent, or 1 in 7 of Americans, the highest proportion of the population since 1994.

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It was the third consecutive annual increase, up from 39.8 million, or 13.2 percent, in 2008.

The bureau added that there were 8.8 million families living in poverty in 2009.

The poverty rate for under-18s rose from 19.0 percent in 2008 to 20.7 percent in 2009, but fewer people 65 and older were in poverty, with the percentage rate falling from 9.7 percent in 2008 to 8.9 percent in 2009.

The statistics cover President Barack Obama's first year in office, when unemployment climbed to 10 percent in the months after the financial meltdown.

In a statement, Obama said that "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.

"Our task now," he added, "is to continue working together to improve our schools, build the skills of our workers, and invest in our nation's critical infrastructure."

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 rising numbers of the uninsured, but the main provisions will not take effect until 2014.

The median — or midpoint — household income was $49,777 in 2009, although the bureau said this was not "statistically different" from the 2008 median.

The report, called Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2009, also found that:

  • Among the working-age population, ages 18 to 65, poverty rose from 11.7 percent to 12.9 percent. That puts it at the highest since the 1960s, when the government launched a war on poverty that expanded the federal role in social welfare programs from education to health care.
  • Poverty rose among all race and ethnic groups, but stood at higher levels for blacks and Hispanics. The number of Hispanics in poverty increased from 23.2 percent to 25.3 percent; for blacks it increased from 24.7 percent to 25.8 percent. The number of whites in poverty rose from 8.6 percent to 9.4 percent.
  • Child poverty rose from 19 percent to 20.7 percent.
  • The earnings of women who worked full time, year-round were 77 percent of that for corresponding men.
  • The real median earnings of men who worked full time, year-round rose by 2.0 percent between 2008 and 2009, from $46,191 to $47,127. For women, the corresponding increase was 1.9 percent, from $35,609 to $36,278.

Politically sensitive time
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 or turn to Republicans.

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The 14.3 percent poverty rate, which covers all ages, was a 16-year high but was lower than estimates of many demographers who were bracing for a record gain based on last year's skyrocketing unemployment. Many had predicted a range of 14.7 percent to 15 percent.

Analysts credited in part increases in Social Security payments in 2009 as well as federal expansions of unemployment insurance, which rose substantially in 2009 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.

Another likely factor was a record number of working mothers, who helped households by bringing home paychecks after the recession took the jobs of a disproportionately high number of men.

Story: Many say poverty rate is a poor measure

"Given all the unemployment we saw, it's the government safety net that's keeping people above the poverty line," said Douglas Besharov, a University of Maryland public policy professor and former scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

In 2009, the poverty level stood 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, such as home ownership.

As a result, the official poverty rate takes into account the effects of some stimulus programs in 2009, such as unemployment benefits as well as jobs that were created or saved by government spending.

But it does not factor in noncash government aid such as tax credits and food stamps, which have surged to record levels in recent months. Experts say such noncash aid tends to have a larger effect on lowering child poverty.

Beginning next year, the government plans to publish new, supplemental poverty figures that are expected to show even higher numbers of people in poverty than previously known.

The figures will incorporate rising costs of medical care, transportation and child care, a change analysts believe will add to the ranks of both seniors and working-age people in poverty.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Escalating U.S. poverty rate sends shockwaves

  1. Transcript of: Escalating U.S. poverty rate sends shockwaves

    WILLIAMS: Good evening.

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: There are new numbers out tonight on the state of poverty in the United States that deserve our attention. They tell a bleak story of struggle in an economy that is leaving a lot of citizens behind. The numbers from the Census Bureau show that in 2009 , 14.3 percent of Americans were living below the poverty line . That's up from the year before, and the highest since 1994 . In terms of actual people, that means more than 43 1/2 million Americans now living below the poverty line , which, by the way, is defined as just under $22,000 a year for a family of four. There are other families who make more than that amount, but because of the cost of living are unable to make ends meet.

    WILLIAMS: There's also alarming news tonight about Americans and their homes and their health insurance . We'll get to all of it. We want to begin with our own Lee Cowan in Los Angeles with more on these numbers and the people behind them. Lee , good evening.

    LEE COWAN reporting: Brian , just to put these numbers in some perspective, it means that one out of every seven Americans is living in poverty tonight. And as high as that number is, experts say it could have been even higher. It's a snapshot of the nation's poor that doesn't discriminate. The poverty rate rose for nearly all races and all ethnicities. A quarter of the nation's African-American population is in poverty. Same is true for Hispanics . Among the hardest hit are children. One in five are now estimated to be growing up poor in the richest nation in the world.

    Unidentified Woman: Numbers five and six.

    COWAN: At foot pantries like this one in Los Angeles , the new face of the poor isn't what you might expect. Take Elma Tapeta , a professional mother of two, who never thought she'd be depending of others for a meal.

    Ms. ELMA TAPETA: We get bread, sometimes we get seafood, sometimes we get chicken.

    COWAN: Across town at the local mission we found Shavon Maybell , a college graduate who's now homeless.

    Ms. SHAVON MAYBELL: I've never, ever really disclosed this to my family because it's embarrassing. I'm expected to do well, you know?

    COWAN: Then there's Norma Gorvera . She's worked since she was 13, but lost her job last year.

    Ms. NORMA GORVERA: When you see that you don't have nothing at home to cook or to offer what we're going to have, it makes it -- it makes it tough.

    COWAN: She can't afford food, let alone health care . And she's not alone. The number of Americans like her without health insurance climbed to 51 million people last year. That's nearly one in six, a record.

    COWAN: The numbers are so bad for working age people that some are comparing them to the 1960s , just before President Lyndon Johnson launched a host of welfare programs in his war on poverty.

    President LYNDON JOHNSON: We shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.

    COWAN: But critics say we've done just that, lose.

    Mr. ROBERT RECTOR (The Heritage Foundation): The child poverty rate today is exactly the same level as it was back when Johnson started the war on poverty in the 1960s , so obviously spending more on welfare isn't the answer here.

    COWAN: Others disagree, saying that welfare programs worked for some, but even more government action needs to be taken.

    Mr. MARC MORIAL (National Urban League): The best anti-poverty program is not a new social program , but a robust jobs program that prepares, trains, and puts people back to work, that expands the economy.

    COWAN: But when Americans are searching for what to eat for dinner or wondering how they're going to feed their children, it's hard to imagine the statistics could be much worse. Now, Brian , most experts say that these numbers aren't necessarily the best estimate of the nation's health. There's a lot of things that they do not take into account, but at the very least they seem to point to a disturbing trend that the problem of poverty isn't diminishing, it's growing. Brian :

    WILLIAMS: Lee Cowan starting us off from LA tonight. Lee , thank you for that.

Photos: Friends and Neighbors: The recession's unseen victims

loading photos...
  1. Members of the Mash family, among 14 people who crammed into this 4 bedroom house in Nelsonville, Ohio because of a lack of jobs.
    -Inside Dateline: Ann Curry on the photographs (Ann Curry / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. It is estimated that 6 of every 10 U.S. adults will be poor for one year or more by age 75. ~ State of Poverty in Ohio: 2010 study (Men eating a meal at the Lottridge Community Center)..
    -Inside Dateline: Ann Curry on the photographs (Ann Curry / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Volunteers at the Friends & Neighbors Community Food Center in Coolville, OH. The food bank mostly serves the rural poor in "the forgotten areas" of three Ohio counties (Athens, Meigs, Washington), although no one in need is turned away. (Ann Curry / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Lisa Roberts, Director of Friends and Neighbors Food Pantry. (Ann Curry  / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Glouster, OH (Ann Curry / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The Ditty Box, Glouster, OH. (Ann Curry / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Young people in Glouster, OH. (Ann Curry / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Laid off crane operator Daniel Zimmerman, showing where his 14-year-old Adam sleeps in the basement. An Air Force veteran, Zimmerman has lost one job after another in recent years because of businesses keep closing (Ann Curry / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Daniel Zimmerman in a second floor bedroom. (Ann Curry / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A pair of sneakers worn by a boy at Pine Aire Village, a trailer park near Athens, Ohio, where many people are living below the poverty line. (Ann Curry / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. The Lottridge Community Center, where the Friends and Neighbors Soup Kitchen is held. (Ann Curry / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A man gets a meal at Lottridge Community Center. (Ann Curry / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Many are embarrassed to stand in food lines, where nationwide the demand has grown 30 percent in the last two years. (Ann Curry / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
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