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Household income drops in Missouri

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 13, 2011 - Median household income in Missouri declined last year. But the number of uninsured residents dropped slightly, as did the rate of poverty. This mixed report came from the latest U.S. Census data.

Household income stood at $46,184 last year, compared to $49,574 in 2009, representing a change of 7 percent. The number of Missourians lacking health insurance stood at 835,000 last year, compared to 871,000 in 2009. The poverty rate stood at 14.8 percent in 2010, compared to a rate of 15.5 percent in 2009, a shift of about 4.5 percent.

The median household income also declined in Illinois, standing at $50,761 last year and $53,743 in 2009 -- a change of more than 5.5 percent. Unlike in Missouri, the poverty rate rose in Illinois, to 14.1 percent last year from 13.2 in 2009, a difference of about 6.8 percent. The number of Illinois residents lacking health insurance stood at 1.9 million last year, compared to 1.8 million the year before.

Census officials stressed that the numbers are preliminary. Data about socio-economic changes in specific cities and counties won't be available until next week.

The preliminary state data mirror the generally dismal national picture. The Census Bureau reported the number of Americans classified as poor last year stood at 15.1 percent, compared to 14.3 percent in 2009. But it added that there was no statistically significant difference in the number of people lacking health insurance last year, 16.3 percent of the population, and the number of uninsured in 2009.

Ruth Ehresman of the Missouri Budget Project says the numbers suggest that state and national policy officials need to change their strategy for addressing the economic downturn. She says the numbers showing that 1 of every 6 Missourians are impoverished and the large numbers still lacking health insurance means the "cuts-only approach" isn't working. She urged that lawmakers seek a balanced strategy that includes "increasing revenue at both the state and federal level."

She also said the data underscored the gradual drop in private health insurance, which now covers 61.3 percent of Missourians under age 65, compared to 74.3 percent 10 years ago.

The census information released Tuesday show that the poverty rate remains highest among black Americans. Nearly 30 percent of them are poor, slightly more than the rate of 25.3 percent for Hispanics and 12.5 percent for Asians. For whites not of Hispanic origin, the poverty rate stood at 9.4 percent.

About 31.6 percent of Americans of Hispanic origin lack health insurance, compared to 20.3 of blacks, 16.5 of Asians, and 11.5 percent of non-Hispanic whites.

The release of the census data occurred on the same day as a hearing by the Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging on the general topic of poverty and health status. The subcommittee's chair is Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont.

Sanders said in his opening statement that "poverty in America today is a death sentence for tens and tens of thousands of our people, which is why the high childhood poverty rate in our country is such an outrage." His assertion that poverty is killing many Americans was based in part from a study released earlier this year by the University of Washington's Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation.

That study argued that the life expectancy for women in 313 U.S. counties, including a handful in Missouri, was actually declining. Some data had been reported by a liberal think tank called Remapping Debate, based in New York. About half of the 20 counties where life expectancies had dropped the most were in Mississippi. Others were in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina and West Virginia.

Funding for the Beacon's health reporting is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization that aims to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.