US: Ranks of Poor, Uninsured Rose in 2003

Genaro C. Armas

WASHINGTON, Aug. 26 (AP)- The number of Americans living in poverty and without health insurance rose for the third straight year in 2003, the Census Bureau reported Thursday in a pair of reports that delivered a double dose of bad economic news for the Bush administration.Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry said the reports demonstrate the administration's failed economic policies. President Bush's supporters said the numbers don't reflect more recent economic gains, including the addition of 1.5 million jobs in the last year.

The reports provided a snapshot of Americans' economic well-being in 2003, two full years after the end of the recession. Joel Naroff, an economist and president of Naroff Economic Advisers in Holland, Pa., said job growth was slow until last August while wages overall were stagnant. Many of those who did get jobs were faced with accepting scaled-back benefits and pensions plans.

``It was what was expected when you have a soft economy and people losing their jobs,'' Naroff said. ``It simply wasn't a good year.''

There were 35.8 million people living in poverty last year, or 12.5 percent of the population. That was 1.3 million more than in 2002.

Children made up more than half the increase - about 800,000. The child poverty rate rose from 16.7 percent in 2002 to 17.6 percent.

More people lacked health insurance as well - about 45 million last year, or 15.6 percent, compared with 43.5 million, or 15.2 percent the previous year.

The rate of uninsured children was relatively stable at 11.4 percent, probably the result of recent expansions of coverage in government programs covering the poor and children, such as the state Children's Health Insurance Program, analysts said.

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 Hispanics' income fell 2.6 percent, to $33,000.

Asians had the highest median income, at more than $55,000, nearly $8,000 more than whites and $26,000 more than blacks. The higher income for Asians is in part due to higher education levels.

Bush, campaigning in Las Cruces, N.M., didn't directly address the Census Bureau reports but reiterated his contention that the economy is improving because of his policies.

``We have more to do to make this economy stronger,'' Bush said. ``We've overcome these obstacles because the entrepreneurial spirit is strong and the small business sector of our economy is vibrant. I also think we've overcome it because of well-timed tax cuts.''

In a statement, Kerry noted that during the years Bush has been in office, 5.2 million people have lost health insurance and 4.3 million have fallen into poverty.

``Under George Bush's watch, America's families are falling further behind,'' Kerry said.

Some Democrats accused the administration of trying to play down the expected bad news by releasing the reports a month earlier than usual and much further away from Election Day. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., also questioned why Census Bureau Director Louis Kincannon - a political appointee - was speaking at the news conference along with career statisticians.

Kincannon denied there were any political motivations and said the release was moved up to coincide with the unveiling of another survey that also covered income and poverty but wasn't comparable to the official national results.

``There were no political considerations, just practical considerations,'' he said.

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.

Geographically, there was no change in median income except in the South, where it declined by more than 1 percent to just under $40,000. It was highest in the West, at $46,800, $100 more than the Northeast and almost $2,000 more than the Midwest.

Surrogates for Bush quickly came to the president's defense, noting, among other things, that the number of people with insurance coverage, increased by 1 million to 243 million. Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said 1.5 million new jobs had been created over the past 11 months and that the manufacturing sector was rebounding strongly.

In a conference call with Commerce Secretary Don Evans, and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson told reporters Bush was focusing on proposals that included reducing the costs of health insurance for businesses, and laid some blame on Congress.

``The big failure is not what is happening in the administration,'' Thompson said. ``Individuals in the Senate have failed to adopt the president's health care plan.''

At a news conference, Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-Texas, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, called the census news ``tragic'' and blamed the ``reckless economic policies'' of Bush and Republicans in Congress.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said Bush backed rollbacks on overtime pay and refused to raise the minimum wage that would have helped middle-class Americans ``while lavishing billions of dollars in tax breaks on the wealthiest Americans.''