WASHINGTON (AP) _ The number of Americans without health insurance rose to 46.3 million last year as people began losing jobs and coverage in the current recession. The poverty rate hit 13.2 percent, an 11-year high.
The Census Bureau's annual report released Thursday offers a snapshot of the economic well-being of American households for 2008, the first full year of the recession. It comes as Congress engages in its high-stakes debate over a health care overhaul, following a renewed plea Wednesday night by President Barack Obama to pass sweeping legislation.
Analysts cautioned the numbers for 2008 could significantly understate today's reality since they do not capture the economic impact in the first half of 2009, when unemployment was steadily rising. The census also asked people whether they had health coverage anytime during 2008, and thus may not include those who lost jobs and their insurance after the financial meltdown last fall.
The jump in poverty could add a new dimension to the health care debate, since eligibility for government aid programs such as Medicaid and children's insurance is tied to the federal poverty level. That means more people will qualify, potentially adding strain to states already struggling to balance budgets due to the recession.
Speaking at the White House, Obama acknowledged that the number of those without coverage may be higher than the Census figures.
“The situation's grown worse over the last 12 months,'' he said. “It's estimated that the ranks of the uninsured have swelled by at least 6 million.''
The figures show about 46.3 million people were uninsured last year. That's higher than the 45.7 million in 2007, due to the steady erosion of employer-provided health insurance. Still, the level remained just below the peak of 47 million who were uninsured in 2006, because of the growth of government insurance programs such as Medicaid for the poor.
The percentage of Americans without health coverage rose to 15.4 percent, which is not statistically different from 15.3 percent in 2007.
Texas had the highest share of people who were uninsured, at about 1 in 4 residents, according to rough calculations by the Census Bureau. It was followed by New Mexico, Florida, Louisiana and Alaska. On the other end of the scale, Massachusetts _ which has a mandatory health insurance law _ had the lowest share, at 5.5 percent.
The nation's poverty rate increased to 13.2 percent, up from the 12.5 percent in 2007. That meant there were 39.8 million, or nearly 1 in 7 people, living in poverty in 2008, an increase of about 2.5 million from the previous year. It was the highest level since 1997, when the rate stood at 13.3 percent.
The official poverty level is now $22,025 for a family of four, based on a calculation that includes only cash income before deductions for taxes. It excludes capital gains or accumulated wealth; it also does not factor in noncash government aid such as food stamps or tax credits.
The median _ or midpoint _ household income declined to $50,303.
In terms of the uninsured, the Census data show employment-based health insurance declined from 177.4 million to 176.3 million, driving the overall decreases in insurance. In contrast, the number covered by government health insurance such as Medicaid and S-CHIP climbed from 83.0 million to 87.4 million. Children, in particular, saw improvement, helped by recent expansions of government health insurance.
Among the findings:
_The number of uninsured children declined from 8.1 million, or 11.0 percent, in 2007, to 7.3 million, or 9.9 percent, in 2008. Both the rate and number of uninsured children are the lowest since 1987, the first year that comparable health insurance data were collected.
_The number of uninsured among whites increased to 10.8 percent, or 21.3 million, up from 10.4 percent, or 20.5 million, in 2007. Blacks, meanwhile, were not statistically different from 2007, at 19.1 percent and 7.3 million. The uninsured rate for Asians in 2008 rose to 17.6 percent, up from 16.8 percent.
_The percentage of uninsured Hispanics decreased to 30.7 percent in 2008, from 32.1 percent in 2007. The number of uninsured Hispanics was not statistically different in 2008, at 14.6 million.
_Divided by region, the uninsured were mostly likely to be found in the West (17.4 percent) and the South (18.2 percent). That is in contrast to 11.6 percent for the Northeast and the Midwest.
The increases in the uninsured were likely to be just the beginning. Based on current job losses, some researchers estimate the present-day number of uninsured is closer to 50 million, the number now used by the Congressional Budget Office.
Diane Rowland, executive vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, also noted the decreases in the percentage of people with employer-provided insurance in 2008 for the eighth year in a row. She cited the proliferation of small businesses, which typically decline to offer insurance because of rising premium costs, which could lead to additional declines in private insurance even if the economy improves.