2011 poverty rate stable, first time in 3 years

Frances Williams is packing fresh produce that will Frances Williams is packing fresh produce that will be given out to needy people at the LI Council of Churches' food pantry. (Sept. 10, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

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The national poverty rate remained virtually unchanged in 2011 from the prior year -- the first stabilization in three years -- while median household income continued to slide, the U.S. Census Bureau said in its annual report Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans without health insurance in 2011 declined from the year before, the bureau said.

The 2011 poverty rate was 15 percent, not statistically different from 2010's 15.1 percent, the Census Bureau estimated.

The number of people under the federal poverty line in 2011 was 46.2 million, the same number as in 2010. The nation's estimated population climbed to about 308 million in 2011, compared with an estimated 306 million people in 2010.

People were categorized as being in poverty in 2011 if their household income was $22,811 or less for a family of two adults and two children. In 2010, the poverty threshold was $22,113 for a family of four.

Asked during a teleconference to explain the reasons behind the poverty rate's stabilization, David Johnson, chief of the bureau's social, economic and housing statistics branch, said analysts believe a cause is people switching from part-time to full-time work.

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Median household income in 2011 was $50,054, a 1.5 percent decline from 2010. Since 2007, the year before the recession, it has dropped 8.1 percent, he said.

Pearl Kamer, chief economist for the Long Island Association, the region's largest business group, said the leveling off of the nation's poverty rate likely reflected "a gradual improvement in the job market. It's been slow, but we are generating jobs."

The number of people in poverty still was a large number, Kamer said, adding, "Stability doesn't mean reduction."

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The percentage of people without health insurance in 2011 was 15.7 percent, or 48.6 million -- a drop from the 2010 estimate of 16.3 percent, or 50 million people.

And the bureau reported a decrease of 2.2 percentage points in the rate of people ages 19 through 25 without health insurance. That comes at a time when changes in health care law allow parents to keep children on their health plans from age 19 until their 26th birthday.

The bureau's 2011 poverty rates for Long Island are slated for release on Sept. 20. The 2010 poverty rate for the region was 6.05 percent, but local experts said the federal threshold underestimates poverty here.

"The federal poverty level is so artificially low, it's meaningless," said the Rev. Thomas Goodhue, executive director of the Long Island Council of Churches, which operates food pantries in Freeport, Hempstead and Riverhead. "People can't make ends meet that are making twice as much as the poverty level."

Among those at the council's Freeport pantry one afternoon this week was Theresa, 42, of Roosevelt, who wouldn't give her full name. She has been out of work for almost a year.

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"I go when I need it," she said. "It's really been hard lately." She said she was excited to have recently landed a cashier's job.

Another woman at the pantry who wouldn't give her name said she works full-time, but her husband's hours have been reduced to part-time. She made this observation: "The cost of living is high and the income is not cutting it."

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