More than 5.6 million Californians – 15.3 percent of the state – lived in poverty last year, according to a report released yesterday by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Nationwide, 43.6 million Americans were in poverty in 2009 – the highest number since the bureau began its estimates 51 years ago. The country's poverty rate was 14.3 percent, up from 13.2 percent in 2008 and the highest since 1994.
The new figures show that more than 1.2 million Californians have fallen below the federal poverty level [spreadsheet] amid the economic downturn. In 2006, the year before the recession began, about 4.4 million people in the state were in poverty. Across the country, the recession has pushed nearly 6.3 million Americans into poverty.
Without unemployment insurance, an additional 3.3 million Americans would have had incomes below the poverty level last year, according to the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research group.
The poverty data are not accurate representations of people's economic well-being, experts say. According to the bureau, the 2009 poverty level was $11,161 for a single person under age 65 and $21,756 for a family of two adults and two children.
But because the poverty level is based on the cost of food alone and does not consider regional differences, the number of Californians unable to afford the cost of living is certainly much higher.
For example, among seniors age 65 and older in the state, 9.5 percent were in poverty in 2009. That's based on income of less than $10,289 for a single senior. But a recent study found that their average cost of living last year was more than twice as high.
In 2007, this disparity meant that 39 percent of California's elderly could not afford their basic needs [PDF] but were not poor enough to qualify for many welfare programs that base eligibility on the federal poverty level.
Children in poverty are of particular concern.
"We really need to hone in on what's happening with children and families with kids, because the more years children spend in poverty, the worse it is for their long-term outcomes," said Sheila Zedlewski, director of the Urban Institute's Income & Benefits Policy Center.
More than one out of five California children – nearly 2 million – lived below the poverty level last year, according to the Census Bureau. Nearly 11 percent lacked health insurance [spreadsheet].
Among people under 65 years old, 22.1 percent of Californians lacked health insurance last year – a rate higher than the national average [spreadsheet] of 18.8 percent without coverage.
2009 was the first year that the number of Americans with health insurance decreased since the bureau began tracking coverage in 1987.
The percentage of people under age 65 with private insurance (63.9 percent) or employer-based coverage (55.8) dropped to their lowest last year. In California, 58.1 percent of people have private insurance, with 49.8 percent covered by their employers.
Enrollment in government health care programs, on the other hand, climbed to their highest rates on record. More than 30 percent of Californians and people nationwide received government insurance. The percentage of people in Medicaid is 15.7 across the country and 18.9 percent in California.