August 26, 2004

More Americans Are Living in Poverty, Census Bureau Says


WASHINGTON, Aug. 26 — The number of Americans living in poverty rose by 1.3 million last year, to 35.9 million, while those without health insurance climbed by 1.4 million, to 45 million, the Census Bureau reported today.

It was the third straight annual increase for both categories.

The figures, which the administration issued a month earlier than usual, quickly became the focus of political charges.

"Today confirms the failure of President Bush's policies for all Americans," Senator John Kerry said, referring to the new data. "Under George Bush's watch, America's families are falling further behind."

President Bush, while not specifically addressing today's report, said in a campaign appearance in Las Cruces, N.M., that "we have more to do to make quality health care available and affordable."

But he said his administration had strengthened Medicare, and "expanded quality care through community health centers for low-income Americans."

The president, as he usually does, credited American workers and entrepreneurs, as well as his own "well-timed tax cuts," for moving the country beyond the worst economic woes.

Other Republicans noted that even as the number of uninsured Americans grew, the number of insured did as well, by a million.

Median household income remained basically flat, at $43,318 when adjusted for inflation.

The numbers were not unexpected, and do not reflect the economic growth of the past several months that has created hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Dan Weinberg, a Census Bureau analyst, said that the data were typical for a post-recession economy but that the numbers of insured reflected continued uncertainty over employment. Employers have cited the high costs of providing health insurance as a reason to hire conservatively.

Still, the new data come amid a close election campaign in which debate over economic health and fairness loom large.

For campaign advisers to Senator Kerry, who have been striving to turn attention away from the bitter controversy over his Vietnam war record and toward economic issues, the new numbers were a welcome gift.

Mr. Kerry wasted no time seizing on today's report as evidence to bolster his criticisms of the administration's economic and health-care policies.

The new figures meant that "five million Americans over five years have lost their health insurance," Mr. Kerry told an audience in Anoka, Minn. "About 45 million Americans go to bed every night, worried."

Meanwhile, he said, older Americans with insufficient prescription-drug coverage were "cutting pills in half in order to be able to get by."

A Kerry campaign statement also called on Mr. Bush to debate the senator "once a week between now and the end of the campaign, so that the issues that really matter to the American people — like the number of uninsured and people living in poverty — can be front and center in this election."

The debate proposal was of a sort often made by presidential challengers, but rarely agreed to by incumbents, who are generally thought to have more to lose. For now, the expectation remains that the men will have three debates, on Sept. 30, Oct. 8 and Oct. 13.

Some Democrats saw political manipulation in the fact that the administration issued the new numbers a month before their usual late-September release.

Publishing the numbers now, at a greater remove from Election Day, "invites charges of spinning the data for political purposes," said Representative Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York.

But Louis Kincannon, the Census Board director and a Bush appointee, said that the earlier release was intended to coordinate better with other reports. It came, he said, without "influence or pressure" from the Bush campaign.

To Rich Gibson's Home Page