More Poor, Incomes Flat

Poverty Rate Up, USA, U.S., American, America, Homeless, Poor CBS

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. Asians had the highest income at just over $55,000. Income for White families remained unchanged at about $47,800. [A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Whites had the highest income].

Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said in a statement that the numbers "underscore the fundamental choice at stake in this election for the American people: four more years of an administration that puts the narrow interests of the few ahead of the interests of most Americans, or new leadership that will serve as a champion for the middle-class and those struggling to join it."

However, supporters of the president say these figures are from 2003 and don't reflect the recent uptick in the economy and jobs growth, reports CBS News Correspondent Bob Fuss. In addition, the total poverty rate and number of people living in poverty are lower under Mr. Bush than they were during President Clinton's third year in office, although the poverty figures were trending downward for Mr. Clinton.

Some Democrats claim the Bush administration, in the midst of a fierce re-election battle, is trying to play down expected bad news from the reports on poverty and health insurance by releasing them about a month earlier than usual.

The annual reports are released separately in late September — one report on poverty and income, the other on insurance. But this year they are being released together on Thursday, much further away from Election Day.

Census Director Louis Kincannon — a Bush political appointee — is participating in the news conference, along with Census Bureau statisticians.

"These actions invite charges of spinning the data for political purposes," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y.

Kincannon denied politics played any role in moving up the release date of the reports. The move, announced earlier this year, was done to coordinate the numbers with the release of other data, the bureau has said.

"There has been no influence or pressure from the (Bush) campaign," Kincannon said.

William O'Hare, a researcher with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private children's advocacy group, 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.

Critics have often said the Bush administration takes unusual liberties with numbers. Mr. Bush last year signed a Medicare prescription drug benefit with an estimated price tag of $395 billion. A month later, the White House said the actual cost was more like $534 billion.

In this year's State of the Union address, the president pledged to halve the deficit by 2009. But his plan largely excluded the cost of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and did not reflect the long-term impact of Mr. Bush's proposal to make recent tax cuts permanent.

But the Bush team is not the only one faulted for playing with the numbers. But focusing on private sector jobs rather than total employment, Democrats often overstate the number of jobs lost under the current administration.

Seeking to make the case that Mr. Bush's policies have harmed average Americans, the Kerry campaign created a new and somewhat selective "misery index," because the better known "misery index" — combining inflation and the unemployment rate — was low by historical standards.

Editor's Note: This corrected story was published August 31, 2004.
  • Jarrett Murphy

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