Americans Are Getting Poorer, and It’s Going to Get Worse

Following President Barack Obama’s Wednesday night speech to Congress in which he stressed the need for comprehensive health care legislation, many supporters used the new Census estimates to support Obama’s call for change.

At the Yorkville Common Pantry, an emergency meal program in East Harlem, Joel Berg, the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, said the troubling numbers underscore the need for health reform.

“Today’s new numbers make it clearer than ever that lack of health insurance and inability to pay medical bills is one of the greatest contributing factors to poverty and hunger in America,” Berg said. “People in poor health rarely earn significant wealth.”

Henry E. Simmons, President of the National Coalition on Health Care, another group pushing for reform, said the Census data also shows that more than 600,000 adults who earn more than $75,000 a year also lost coverage in 2008.

“The problem of (the uninsured) is not confined to the less affluent. More middle-income Americans are losing their health insurance coverage,” Simmons said.

As in previous economic downturns, public health coverage through government-run programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program helped cover many people otherwise would’ve gone without. Enrollment in Medicaid and SCHIP alone increased by 3 million in 2008.

This expanded coverage caused the number of uninsured children to fall from 8.1 million or 11 percent in 2007 to 7.3 million of 9.9 percent in 2008.

“This was the lowest number (and percentage) of children without health insurance since 1987,” said David Johnson, who heads the Census Bureau’s housing and household economics statistics division.

Many experts think the 2008 data substantially understates how many people lack health coverage today because the unemployment rate in 2008 ranged from 4.8 to 7.2 percent compared with 9.7 percent in August.

Ron Pollack, the executive director of the health care advocacy group, Families USA, said every percentage point increase in the unemployment rate adds about 1.1 million people to the uninsured rolls. He estimates that 50 million Americans now lack coverage.

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