Number of People in Poverty Rises to Record Level in 2009

The number of people in poverty rose to the highest level on record in 2009, the Census Bureau reported Thursday, pegging the U.S. poverty rate at 14.3 percent.

The national rate is the highest since 1994 and among the working-age poor the highest level since the 1960s. The Census Bureau says that about 43.6 million people, or 1 in 7, were in poverty last year. That's up from 39.8 million, or 13.2 percent, in 2008, and the largest number since poverty estimates were first recorded in 1959 -- the U.S. population has also grown by more than 130 million in that time.

The statistics released Thursday cover President Obama's first year in office, when unemployment topped 10 percent in the months after the financial meltdown. The report comes at a sensitive time with the midterm congressional elections just weeks away and lawmakers trying to show their efforts have helped drag the economy out of a rut.

While the poverty rate was the highest since 1994, it was lower than estimates of many demographers who were bracing for a record gain based on last year's skyrocketing unemployment. Many had predicted a range of 14.7 percent to 15 percent. Analysts credited increases in government pension plans and extensions in unemployment benefits.

"Given all the unemployment we saw, it's the government safety net that's keeping people above the poverty line," said Douglas Besharov, a University of Maryland public policy professor and former scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

The number of people lacking health insurance also rose from 46.3 million to 50.7 million, due mostly to the loss of employer-provided health insurance during the recession. Congress passed a health overhaul earlier this year to extend coverage to more people.

The median -- or midpoint -- household income was $49,777, similar to the 2008 figure.

Other census findings:

--Among the working-age population, ages 18 to 65, poverty rose from 11.7 percent to 12.9 percent. That puts it at the highest since the 1960s, when the government launched a war on poverty that expanded the federal role in social welfare programs from education to health care.

--Poverty rose among all race and ethnic groups, but stood at higher levels for blacks and Hispanics. The number of Hispanics in poverty increased from 23.2 percent to 25.3 percent; for blacks it increased from 24.7 percent to 25.8 percent. The number of whites in poverty rose from 8.6 percent to 9.4 percent.

--Child poverty rose from 19 percent to 20.7 percent.

In 2009, the poverty level stood at $21,954 for a family of four, based on an official government calculation that includes only cash income before tax deductions. It excludes capital gains or accumulated wealth, such as home ownership.

As a result, the official poverty rate takes into account the effects of some stimulus programs in 2009, such as unemployment benefits as well as jobs that were created or saved by government spending. But it does not factor in noncash government aid such as tax credits and food stamps, which have surged to record levels in recent months. Experts say such noncash aid tends to have a larger effect on lowering child poverty.

Beginning next year, the government plans to publish new, supplemental poverty figures that are expected to show even higher numbers of people in poverty than previously known. The figures will incorporate rising costs of medical care, transportation and child care, a change analysts believe will add to the ranks of both seniors and working-age people in poverty.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.