Experts Say Poverty Down, Income Up

By Monisha Bansal | July 7, 2008 | 8:32 PM EDT

( - The U.S. Census Bureau on Tuesday is scheduled to release figures on income, poverty rates, and health insurance coverage in America. Policy experts anticipate the numbers will show progress.

Douglas Besharov, a scholar in social welfare studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), said at a briefing in Washington, D.C., on Monday the report will almost certainly show a reduction in measured poverty.

"Year-to-year changes in the poverty rate are usually correlated with changes in the unemployment rate," he noted. "In 2006, unemployment fell from 5.1 percent to 4.6 percent."

Besharov added that unemployment for single mothers also fell last year. "These numbers suggest the official poverty count will have also declined in 2006," he said.

Besharov noted that while 40 years ago nearly a quarter of the elderly were below the poverty line, "material poverty among the elderly has been [almost] eliminated," though "child poverty has risen."

Sharon Parrott, director of welfare reform and income support policy at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said: "It is pretty well known that of all the kinds of poverty we have, that is where we've had the most progress."

But, she added, "despite Medicare, there are high out-of-pocket medical expenses." When those are accounted for, Parrott said, "poverty for the elderly goes up significantly."

Besharov also noted that "income dispersion continues to grow with those at the top doing vastly better than the rest."

"For the top 60 percent, their incomes are rising," he said, but those at the bottom "seem to be stuck."

Joe Antos, a scholar for healthcare and retirement policy at AEI, noted that the number of uninsured is likely to be higher in Tuesday's report.

"The bureau reports that there were about 45 million people - 15.3 percent of the population - who are uninsured," Antos said, referring to data from 2005. "It's reasonable to think that the numbers that we're going to see [Tuesday] will be at least somewhat higher than that.

"That has at least been the trend for at least the last 10 to 15 years," he noted. "The next president will almost certainly address the issue of the uninsured, although ... there is no guarantee that action will actually be taken."

Antos added that the report will have "important numbers, but certainly polarizing numbers and [is] generally misunderstood."

"There is considerable diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, age, income, employment status, and all sorts of other characteristics," he said. "A third of the uninsured live in higher-income households. They don't buy it because it doesn't appear to be a good deal."

Antos also said, "Despite all the talk we hear about children's health insurance, dependent children are less likely to be uninsured than young adults and generally are less likely to be uninsured than any other group other than people over 65 who have Medicare."

But Parrott said people should be cautious about the report.

"There's likely to be some grand statements about how this shows that the policies of the Bush administration and the tax cuts and the economy are all doing a wonderful job to help average Americans," she said. "I think those statements may be overblown."

Calling the analysis "too simplistic," she said, "We are in the fifth full year of the recovery and economic growth if we look back to 2006. Simply to return to the levels attained during the last recession - that is, to the level in 2001 - the poverty rate will need to drop from 12.6 percent in 2005 to 11.7 percent.

"This would require an unusually large one-year decline," she noted.

"So far this recovery has been pretty slow in helping low and moderate income families and so while we'll see some improvement, I think we're likely to look not great compared to where we were in 2001," Parrott said.

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