Poverty rate in U.S., Ohio stabilizes; income falls

The poverty rate in Ohio and across the nation stabilized last year, although many Miami Valley families — from suburbanites to the poorest urban dwellers — continue to struggle, largely because of joblessness and a substantial decline in median incomes.

The nation’s poverty rate last year dipped to 15 percent from 15.1 percent in 2010, essentially unchanged but still historically higher than at any time since the government began tracking poverty in the 1960s, the Census Bureau reported Wednesday.

The marginal decline was the first drop in the U.S. poverty rate in five years, but more than 46 million Americans still live in poverty — defined by the government as a family of four earning less than $23,021 in 2011.

In Ohio, the percentage of the population living in poverty edged down to 15.1 percent from 15.4 percent in 2010.

“You have to look at that and say 15.1 is better than 15.4, but it’s still terribly, terribly high,’’ said Gene King, director of the Ohio Poverty Law Center. “There are still about 1.7 million Ohioans living in poverty, and the poverty rate has been above 10 percent for at least a decade now.”

While poverty rates were down last year, median incomes also fell in the Buckeye State and across the country for the fourth year in a row. Median income in Ohio adjusted for inflation fell to $44,648 a year in 2011 from $47,333 in the previous year. Nationwide, real median incomes fell to $50,054 from $50,831 over the past two years.

The drop real median wages has left some local families coping with a new norm of living hand-to-mouth.

“We never have lived above our means, but staying on budget is even more of priority now,” said Doug Anderson, 36, of Riverside, who recently left his job as a loss prevention specialist at a Rite Aid pharmacy after succumbing to a rare disease commonly known as Charcot foot, a condition that weakens bones in the foot.

Anderson, who is permanently disabled, has applied for Social Security disability benefits. But even if his application is approved, he anticipates his income will be cut in half.

“I’d be going from making about $30,000 a year to maybe $1,300 a month,” he said. “It’s better than nothing, but you’re just treading water. You just have to cut back and look for anywhere you can save money, and try to make it work.”

The Andersons are a classic example of how quickly a family can fall into poverty by loosing their connection to the job market, said Dennis Sullivan, a Miami University economics professor who teaches classes on poverty and income distribution.

“If a family has two full-time earners, they’re hardly every poor because two sets of full-time earnings almost always exceeds the poverty level unless you’ve got a really big family,” Sullivan said. “The typical family in poverty is in poverty because of long-term unemployment or a disability situation that takes them out of the job market.”

U.S. unemployment fell sharply to 9.1 percent last year from 10.6 percent in January 2010, and Ohio’s jobless rate also fell to 9.1 percent from 9.7 percent over the same period. But many of those workers who landed new jobs found it difficult to stay out of poverty even though they were back on the payroll, Anderson said.

“Its important that people understand that most poor families earn money from work, but that work doesn’t get them out of poverty,’’ he said. “There just aren’t that many jobs being created that constitute a ticket out of poverty anymore.’’

That was borne out in the Census report, which found that while the number of men working full-time climbed by 1.7 million and the number of full-time working women rose by 500,000 from 2010 to 2011, the real median earnings of both men and women fell by 2.5 percent over the same period.

In addition to releasing the 2011 poverty rate, the Census published also new data on the share of Americans without health insurance.

The government said that 260.2 million Americans, or 84.3 percent, had health insurance coverage in 2011. That’s up from 256.6 million, or 83.7 percent, in 2010.

The number of Americans with health insurance increased, due in part to new coverage available under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Increases in Medicaid enrollment also played a role.

One provision of the law allows young adults 19 through 25 to get coverage through their parents’ policies.

Census data showed that in 2011, 48.6 million Americans (15.7 percent) were uninsured, compared to 49.9 million (16.3 percent) in 2010, and 31 million (12.9 percent) in 1987. Among those with insurance in 2011, 260.2 million had either private or government-funded insurance, compared to 256.6 million the previous year.

In 2011, 197.3 million Americans had private insurance, compared to 196.1 million in 2010. Medicaid enrollment climbed from 48.5 million in 2010 to 50.8 million in 2011.

Looking at the numbers by age group, 21.6 million (72.7 percent) Americans ages 18 to 24 had either private or government-funded health insurance in 2010, including 17.4 million (58.4 percent) who had private insurance through a job or a direct purchase; and 4.6 million (15.5 percent) who had Medicaid.

In 2011, 22.49 million Americans 18 to 24 (74.6 percent) had some type of health insurance, including 18 million (74.6 percent) who had private insurance and 4.8 million (16 percent) who had Medicaid.

A survey released Tuesday by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research & Educational Trust found that 2.9 million young adults signed up for coverage through their parents’ policies in 2011 and 2012.

David P. Little, special projects communications coordinator for Progress Ohio, called the jump “good news for those young people impacted who will now have preventive care services and insurance that can keep them from being being the victims of some sort of medical calamity. It gives them both medical and economic security.”

The numbers show also shifts in insurance coverage for working-age adults, including a significant growth in Medicaid coverage nationally.

In 1999, 2.28 million adults 25 to 34 had Medicaid coverage, or 5.9 percent, compared to just over 6 million, or 14.8 percent, in 2011. In that same time frame, the number of young adults with some type of private insurance dropped to 24.9 million or 60.6 percent in 2011 from 28.3 million or 78.9 percent in 1999.

For adults 45 to 54, more than over 4 million had Medicaid in 2011, compared to 1.5 million in 1999. In that same period, private insurance coverage shifted to a high of 33.59 million in 2007 from 30.7 million in 1999. From 2010 to 2011, the number with private coverage dropped from 31.85 million to 31.3 million while the number of people in that group receiving Medicaid increased from 3.49 million to 3.77 million.

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