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Americans lacking health insurance rose in '08

/ Source: The Associated Press

The number of Americans without health insurance rose to 46.3 million last year as people began losing jobs and coverage in the current recession. The poverty rate hit 13.2 percent, an 11-year high.

The Census Bureau's annual report released Thursday offers a snapshot of the economic well-being of American households for 2008, the first full year of the recession. It comes as Congress engages in its high-stakes debate over health care overhaul, following a renewed plea Wednesday by President Barack Obama to pass sweeping legislation.

The numbers for 2008 do not capture the economic impact in the first half of 2009 as hundreds of thousands of Americans lost their jobs and likely their health insurance. Speaking at the White House, Obama acknowledged that the number of those without coverage may be higher than the Census figures.

"The situation's grown worse over the last 12 months," he said. "Its estimated that the ranks of the uninsured have swelled by at least 6 million."

The United States is the only developed nation that does not have a comprehensive national health plan for all its citizens. Most Americans rely on private insurance, usually provided by their employers. However not all employers provide insurance and not everyone can afford to buy it on their own.

The figures show about 46.3 million people were uninsured last year. That is higher than the 45.7 million in 2007, due to the steady erosion of employer-provided health insurance. Still, the level remained just below the peak of 47 million who were uninsured in 2006, because of the growth of government insurance programs such as Medicaid for the poor.

The percentage of Americans without health coverage rose to 15.4 percent, which is not statistically different from 15.3 percent in 2007.

The nation's poverty rate increased to 13.2 percent, up from the 12.5 percent in 2007. That meant there were 39.8 million, or nearly 1 in 7 people, living in poverty in 2008, an increase of about 2.5 million from the previous year. It was the highest level since 1997, when the rate stood at 13.3 percent.

The official poverty level is now $22,025 for a family of four, based on a calculation that includes only cash income before deductions for taxes. It excludes capital gains or accumulated wealth; it also does not factor in noncash government aid such as food stamps or tax credits.

The median — or midpoint — household income declined to $50,303.

Among the findings:

  • The number of uninsured children declined from 8.1 million, or 11.0 percent, in 2007, to 7.3 million, or 9.9 percent, in 2008. Both the rate and number of uninsured children are the lowest since 1987, the first year that comparable health insurance data were collected.
  • The number of uninsured among whites increased to 10.8 percent, or 21.3 million, up from 10.4 percent, or 20.5 million, in 2007. Blacks, meanwhile, were not statistically different from 2007, at 19.1 percent and 7.3 million. The uninsured rate for Asians in 2008 rose to 17.6 percent, up from 16.8 percent.
  • The percentage of uninsured Hispanics decreased to 30.7 percent in 2008, from 32.1 percent in 2007. The number of uninsured Hispanics was not statistically different in 2008, at 14.6 million.
  • Divided by region, the uninsured were mostly likely to be found in the West (17.4 percent) and the South (18.2 percent). That is in contrast to 11.6 percent for the Northeast and the Midwest.

Analysts warned that the declines in the uninsured, although modest, were likely just the tip of the iceberg, given significantly higher unemployment rates seen in 2009. Based on current job losses, for instance, some researchers estimate the present-day number of uninsured is closer to 50 million, the number now used by the Congressional Budget Office.

Diane Rowland, executive vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, also noted the decreases in the percentage of people with employer-provided insurance in 2008 for the eighth year in a row. She cited the proliferation of small businesses, which typically decline to offer insurance because of rising premium costs, which could lead to additional declines in private insurance even if the economy improves.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.