Poverty Up, Health Insurance Coverage Down

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Last Thursday, the Census Bureau released its 2003 national estimates of income, poverty and insurance coverage. Interestingly, this year's release includes the addition of the Current Population Survey's (CPS) estimates alongside the American Community Survey (ACS) estimates, typically released this time of year. While this may not seem to be a dramatic change, some democratic politicians have been speculating about the possibility of White House involvement in the timing of a dual release, as opposed to the CPS's typical release in September, closer to the presidential election.

However, Charles Louis Kincannon, the director of the U.S. Census Bureau, maintained at a press conference on Thursday that the simultaneous release was, "... to reduce confusion, and not to increase it... [and] to release both sets together and explain the differences between the surveys." The surveys of similar demographic variables offer slightly differing geographic analyses of the U.S. population. The CPS results are generally held as the standard for the official national estimates, while the ACS is enhanced to study and compare data at smaller geographic segments, like states, counties, cities and smaller communities.

Both surveys show that while, on average, Americans' incomes have not changed (when adjusted for inflation), the number of Americans living in poverty has increased by 0.4 percent and the number of Americans with health insurance coverage has decreased by 0.4 percent, as well. The median household income in the nation is on average $43,000 a year, although the South region of the country is the only region below this average, with a median household income of $39,000, as opposed to the Northeast and West which both have median incomes of just under $47,000. New Jersey and Maryland lead the way in terms of state median income with $58,600 and $57,200, respectively, while West Virginia holds the title for the lowest with $31,000. Also, when breaking out median household income across racial lines, there was insignificant or no change for non-Hispanic white households, black households, and Asian households, but income declined for Hispanic households by 2.6 percent. The survey of income showed that most Americans are seeing the same level of income that they did last year, although poverty rates have not seen the same solidity.

The number of Americans living below the poverty line increased by 1.3 million people, to 35.9 million in 2003. When considering median income data, not surprisingly, the South led the increase. According to the ACS, three counties in Texas in particular: Hidalgo (38.0 percent), Cameron (36.5 percent) and El Paso (27.4 percent) were well above the national poverty rate of 12.7 percent. All three of these counties share their borders with Mexico, which might lead one to wonder if immigration influenced the decrease in Hispanic income in 2003. Dr. Daniel Weinberg, the chief of the Housing and Household Economic Statistics at the Census Bureau, evaluated the foreign born versus native figures on income and poverty, which show that foreign-born Americans suffered a decrease in income of 3.5 percent, although their poverty rate had remained unchanged. Native-born Americans, however, received an increase of 0.3 percent in their poverty rate while their median income was unchanged in 2003.

The surveys also revealed that 400,000 fewer Americans had health insurance in 2003, compared to the previous year. One million Americans had acquired health insurance but 1.4 million lost coverage since 2002. This subject, in particular, is one of intense political interest, because of the likely debate that evolves over these results and both candidates' plans for the future of healthcare for Americans. With the announced loss in coverage across America, the democratic campaign is likely upset that impact of this data may wear off before the election. But for journalists, demographers and population analysts, the Census Bureau's change is a welcomed attempt at cutting down the confusion around the multiple methods of collection and sources of their estimates.

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