Poverty Rate Declines; Number of Uninsured Hits Record High of 47 Million
By Christopher Lee and N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Write
Tuesday, August 28, 2007; 1:02 PM
The nation’s poverty rate declined for the first time this decade, but the number of Americans without health insurance rose to a record high of 47 million in 2006, according to Census figures released today.
The statistics offered a mixed picture of the economy’s ongoing recovery from the recession of 2000-2001. While median household income rose for the second consecutive year in 2006, the increase appeared to be driven by a jump in the number of people in each household taking on full-time jobs, rather than a rise in wages.
The addition of 2.2 million people to the roster of the uninsured was attributed largely to continuing declines in employer-sponsored insurance coverage.
In all, 15.8 percent of Americans lacked coverage last year, up from 15.3 percent in 2005, according to new figures from the Current Population Survey. That tied 1998 as the year with the highest percentage of uninsured people over the last two decades.
Children fared even worse. Last year 11.7 percent of youngsters under 18 years lacked health insurance, up from 10.9 percent in 2005. The percentage of uninsured children has increased two years in a row after declining for at least five years, according to the Census data.
According to the Census Bureau, the poverty rate declined from 12.6 percent in 2005 to 12.3 percent in 2006. Median household income rose by 0.7 percent, to $48,200, during the same period.
The new health insurance figures are sure to add urgency to the debate between Congress and the White House over the future of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which helps insure children whose families earned too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford insurance on their own. The numbers also will likely increase the jockeying among presidential candidates to separate themselves from the pack on how they would tackle health care, the issue that many polls show is the top domestic concern of Americans.
“Everywhere you turn, in communities, at statehouses and in Congress, discussions are taking place about how to fix the troubled state of our fractured health care system,” Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a non-partisan health care research and advocacy organization , said in a statement. “When millions of hard-working men and women do not have health insurance themselves, and cannot cover their children, it raises serious clinical, economic and moral concerns about how we as a nation will meet the needs of our people.”
Kathleen Stoll, health policy director of the liberal advocacy group Families USA, said the uptick in the uninsured illustrated the “critical role” played by government-subsidized insurance programs such as Medicaid, which serves very low income children and pregnant women, and SCHIP, whose target population is children of the working poor.
“Despite SCHIP’s earlier success in decreasing the number of uninsured children, their numbers have risen for the second straight year because of a decline in employer-based coverage,” Stoll said in a statement. “Today census numbers only confirm what state officials and health care advocates have seen first-hand — SCHIP resources must be increased to meet the health care needs of the increasing number of uninsured children.”
Congress and the president are locked in a pitched battle over the future of the $5 billion a year SCHIP program, which serves about 6.6 million kids annually with low cost insurance coverage.
The Senate and the House have passed separate bills that would dramatically increase funding and make it possible to sign up millions of new children for coverage. But President Bush wants to keep the program largely unchanged and has promised to veto either bill, saying they would inappropriately increase the federal role in health care and extend coverage to middle class families.
The administration, stymied so far in its legislative battle, announced new administrative policies this month that will make it harder for states to insure all but the lowest-income children under SCHIP. The new rules are aimed at preventing parents with private insurance for their children from availing of the government-subsidized program.
Under the new policy, a state seeking to enroll a child whose family earns more than 250 percent of the poverty level — or $51,625 for a family of four — must first document that the child has been uninsured for at least one year. The state must also demonstrate that at least 95 percent of eligible children from families making less than 200 percent of the poverty level are already enrolled in the children’s health insurance program or Medicaid — a sign-up rate that no state has yet managed.
Democrats and children’s advocates said that the policy will jeopardize coverage for children whose parents work at jobs that do not provide employer-paid insurance. SCHIP was created in 1997 and will expire at the end of September if Congress does not reauthorize it.
Much of the increase in the number of uninsured Americans can be blamed on the continued decline in the number of people covered by private insurance, particularly employer-provided coverage, said David Johnson, chief of housing and household economic statistics for the Census.
“The decrease in the private insurance rate fell for all people,” regardless of age, Johnson said.
In fact, the percentage of people covered by employer-based health insurance fell to 59.7 percent in 2006, down from 60.2 percent in 2005.
Government programs are not taking up the slack. According to the Census, the percentage of people covered by government health programs fell from 27.3 percent in 2005 to 27 percent in 2006.
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