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Louisiana’s poverty rate is second in nation

19th September 2011   ·   0 Comments

Although you won’t hear about it in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s flashy television ads or read about it in the incumbent governor’s re-election literature, government data reveal that Louisiana has the second-highest poverty rate in the United states, second only to the state of Mississippi. That doesn’t bode well in a state that is also grappling with low-achieving public schools, inadequate health care and budgetary problems that led to major cuts to higher education, one of the few tools available to lift families out of poverty.

As the leader of a state who chose to turn down federal stimulus funds that could have been used to address poverty and other problems, it remains to be seen how Gov. Bobby Jindal’s record on poverty will impact him at the polls.

A recent report by the U.S. Census shows that an alarming number of Americans are living below the poverty line, in fact a greater percentage of Americans than at any other time in the nation’s history.

The Census report shows that the ranks of the nation’s poor have swelled to a record 46.2 million — nearly one in six Americans — as the prolonged pain of the recession leaves millions still struggling and out of work. And the number without health insurance has reached 49.9 million, the most in over two decades.

The figures are in a Census Bureau report, released Tuesday, that offers a somber snapshot of the economic well-being of U.S. households for last year when joblessness hovered above nine percent for a second year. The rate is still 9.1 percent at the start of an election year that’s sure to focus on the economy and President Barack Obama’s stewardship of it.

The overall poverty rate climbed to 15.1 percent, from 14.3 percent the previous year, and the rate from 2007-2010 rose faster than for any similar period since the early 1980s when a crippling energy crisis amid government cutbacks contributed to inflation, spiraling interest rates and unemployment. For last year, the official poverty level was an annual income of $22,314 for a family of four.

Measured by total numbers, the 46 million now living in poverty are the most on record dating back to when the census began track in 1959. The 15.1 percent tied the level of 1993 and was the highest since 1983.

Facing South reported last week that the situation is especially dire in Southern states, where families have struggled with cycles of poverty for much of the 20th century and beyond.

Southern states dominate the list of states with the highest poverty rates. Among the 20 states (including the District of Columbia) with the highest poverty rates, 12 of them are in the South. The only Southern state with a poverty rate lower than the U.S. average of 15.1 percent is Virginia, with a poverty rate of 10.7 percent.

Among U.S. regions, the South experienced the greatest increase in poverty from 2009 to 2010, at 1.2 percent. That was double the 0.6 percent increase in poverty in the Northeast and Midwest, and more than double the 0.5 percent increase in the West.

Households in the South, Midwest and West all experienced declines in median household income between 2009 and 2010. Income in the Northeast fell slightly, but the decline was not statistically significant.

Broken down by state, Mississippi had the highest share of poor people, at 22.7 percent, according to calculations by the Census Bureau. It was followed by Louisiana, the District of Columbia, Georgia, New Mexico and Arizona. On the other end of the scale, New Hampshire had the lowest share, at 6.6 percent.

The share of Americans without health coverage rose from 16.1 percent to 16.3 percent — or 49.9 million people — according to Census Bureau revisions. The increase was due mostly to continued losses of employer-provided health insurance in the weakened economy.

Congress passed a health overhaul last year to address rising numbers of the uninsured. While the main provisions don’t take effect until 2014, one aspect taking effect in late 2010 allowed young adults to be covered under their parents’ health insurance until age 26.

The uninsured rate for adults 18 to 24 actually declined last year, from 29.3 percent to 27.2 percent, noted Brett O’Hara, chief of the Health and Disability Statistics branch at the Census Bureau. That was the only age group that posted a decrease, and he said “the law change certainly could be a factor.”

For last year, the median — or midpoint — household income was $49,445, down 2.3 percent from 2009.

The poor include Nekisha Brooks, 28, of Fort Washington, Md., who lost her job as a customer service representative for AT&T several months ago in a round of layoffs. Raising five young children, she is now on food stamps and partly leaning on friends and family for help.

“It’s hard on the kids,” Brooks told The Associated Press, describing how her family has had to cut back on clothing and restaurant outings. “I’ve been putting in job applications every day and calling around, from housekeeping to customer service to admin or waitresses, but nobody seems to be hiring right now.”

Bruce Meyer, a public policy professor at the University of Chicago, cautioned that the worst may be yet to come in poverty levels, citing in part continued rising demand for food stamps this year as well as “staggeringly high” numbers in those unemployed for more than 26 weeks. He noted that more than six million people are in the category of long-term unemployed and more likely to fall into poverty, accounting for more than two out of five currently out of work.

The latest numbers, which cover Obama’s second year in office, offer political fodder for both parties as Obama seeks to push a new $447 billion plan for creating jobs and stimulating the economy. The plan includes a proposed Social Security payroll tax cut and an extension of unemployment benefits.

Obama is urging Congress to pay for the new spending largely by increasing taxes on the wealthy, which Republicans have emphatically rejected.

On Tuesday, the Census Bureau noted the impact of government safety-net programs on the poor. It estimated that new unemployment benefits passed in 2009 — which gave workers up to 99 weeks of payments after layoffs, and didn’t run out for most people until this year — lifted 3.2 million above the poverty line. Social Security kept about 20.3 million — seniors as well as working-age adults receiving disability payments — out of poverty.

“If these programs are cut back in the future, poverty rates are likely to rise even more,” Meyer told The Associated Press.

At the same time, the working-age population — ages 18 to 64 — showed some of the biggest hits in poverty, rising from 12.9 percent to 13.7 percent. Working-age Americans now represent nearly three out of five poor people and are at the highest level since the 1960s when the war on poverty was launched.

Last year saw a third year of increases in Americans without health insurance, lifting the total number to the highest since the government began tracking the figures in 1987. The number of people covered by employment-based health plans declined from 170.8 million to 169.3 million, although those losses were partially offset by gains in government health insurance such as Medicaid and Medicare.

The Census report also found that:

• Poverty rose among all racial and ethnic groups except Asians. The number of Hispanics in poverty increased from 25.3 percent to 26.6 percent; for Blacks it rose from 25.8 percent to 27.4 percent and for Asians it was flat at 12.1 percent. The number of whites in poverty rose from 9.4 percent to 9.9 percent.

• Child poverty rose from 20.7 percent to 22 percent.

• Poverty among people 65 and older was statistically unchanged at nine percent, after hitting a record low of 8.9 percent in 2009.

• The poor are getting even poorer, with the share of the population earning below half of the poverty line hitting a record high of 6.7 percent last year.

The official poverty level is based on a government calculation that includes only income before tax deductions. It excludes capital gains or accumulated wealth, such as home ownership.

As a result, the official poverty rate takes into account the effects of some stimulus programs passed in 2009, such as unemployment benefits, as well as jobs that were created or saved by government spending. It does not factor in noncash government aid such as tax credits and food stamps.

This article was originally published in the September 19, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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