Report: Nearly 1 In 7 Americans Were Poor In '09

About 43.6 million people were poor last year in the United States. But the poverty rate didn't go as high as some had predicted. Demographers with the U.S. Census Bureau, which released the figures Thursday, said unemployment benefits helped to cushion some of the impact of the recession.

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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Forty-three-point-six million people in the United States - that's about one in seven - were poor last year. That's the highest number since government began collecting such data 51 years ago. But the poverty rate did not go as high as some had predicted. Demographers with the U.S. Census Bureau, which released the figures, said unemployment benefits helped to cushion some of the impact of the recession.

We're joined by NPR's Pam Fessler, who covers poverty, to talk about the new numbers. Good morning, Pam.

PAM FESSLER: Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: So what do you think these new poverty numbers show?

FESSLER: Well, first of all, they do show that there was a substantial increase in the number of poor people in the United States last year. Three-point-seven million more individuals fell below the poverty line than in 2008. And the poverty rate itself - 14.3 percent - is the highest it's been since 1994. Officials say that the main reason is the lack of work. It's, you know, definitely a driving factor. But interestingly, median income in the United States was basically unchanged between 2008 and 2009. And officials say that one of the reasons appears to be not only the unemployment insurance benefits that people received, but that there was also an increase in Social Security benefits, and, in fact, poverty dropped for Americans 65 and older last year as a result of that.

At the same time, poverty rose the most for children. Almost 21 percent of U.S. children now live in poor families. It also went up a lot more for Hispanics than it did for both blacks and non-Hispanic whites.

WERTHEIMER: And so the bottom of bad part of these numbers, the driver in the bad part of these numbers is jobs.

FESSLER: Yeah. That - clearly, that people did not have enough work. They were not getting enough wages. But, you know, there were also other things that were taking place with the collapse of the housing market that we had in 2008. So there were a lot of factors at work here to create these poverty numbers.

But, as the officials said, you know, the unemployment insurance really actually kept probably millions of people above the poverty line who might otherwise have fallen below it.

WERTHEIMER: So these new numbers - even if they're not as high as some people feared they might be - are still likely to raise questions about whether the Obama administration's economic plans are working. But this was 2009.

FESSLER: Right. Exactly. So that was the first year that the administration was in office, so the argument will be made, I'm sure, by the administration that their policies did not have enough time to take effect. However, the joblessness continues to go up. And if joblessness is a - the main factor for driving up these numbers, many people are predicting that the poverty rate this year will also be very high. So it's certain to be a very big part of the debate in the fall campaign, and, you know, whether or not we should be cutting taxes or spending more to help low-income Americans during these difficult times.

WERTHEIMER: Is there any impact that you can see from these numbers - in spending in the stimulus package - for low-income Americans?

FESSLER: Well, it's kind of interesting that billions of dollars were spent not only in unemployment insurance for struggling Americans, but also new benefits, food stamp benefits, tax credits for low-income working families, many other things. But those numbers are not actually reflected in these poverty figures. There's a big controversy over how we measure poverty. These things are not included. And there is a move afoot, and the government is going to be putting out supplemental party figures next year that do reflect some of these benefits that many Americans receive to help them, and are not reflected in the rate.

WERTHEIMER: So does that mean that the new numbers are not accurate?

FESSLER: Well, there's a big controversy about that. It does reflect some things. It reflects what people who are - wages, and what impact that is having on poverty and how you can compare with previous years. But it doesn't give the full picture.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Pam Fessler. Thank you very much.

FESSLER: Thank you.

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