New data on poverty and uninsured show recession's continued effects

The U.S. Census Bureau today released its annual report on income, poverty, and health insurance coverage for 2009 based on its March Current Population Survey.  The data reflected the severity of the recession throughout 2009: the national poverty rate rose from 13.2 percent to 14.3 percent, as an additional 3.7 million Americans in 2009 lived in households with income below the federal poverty level (just over $22,000 for a family of four).  While acknowledging the extent of the hardships facing millions of Americans families, the White House emphasized the important role that increases in unemployment insurance benefits and Social Security payments that were part of the 2009 Recovery Act played in keeping millions of Americans out of poverty – indeed, the poverty rate for seniors actually declined this past year.  Meanwhile, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted that if low-income tax credits and non-cash benefit programs, such as food stamps, had been included, the rise in the poverty rate would have been considerably smaller.  (A new Supplemental Poverty Measure, which we discussed in this recent post, will include these benefits).

The national health insurance data showed a continuation and acceleration of long-term trends: an overall decline in the percentage of Americans with health insurance, with progress in increasing the ranks of insured children through expanded access to public insurance (Medicaid and CHIP) being more than offset by the erosion of employer-sponsored insurance, leading to growing numbers of uninsured adults. Overall, the number of Americans without health insurance increased by 4.3 million to 50.7 million, bringing the rate of uninsured to 16.7 percent.

At the state level, there was an apparently stunning jump in the number of uninsured Oklahomans this year compared to last: 659,000 Oklahomans, or 18.1 percent, were reported to be without health insurance coverage in 2009 compared to 498,000, or 14.0 percent, in 2008. However, last year the Current Population Survey reported an enormous decline in the number of uninsured Oklahomans, as we discussed here.  Last year’s survey found gains in coverage across all ages and for private coverage as well as public, of a magnitude that stretched the limits of credibility. At the time we stated:

Whether there was a real burst of increased health insurance coverage at the tail end of Oklahoma’s economic boom, or whether we’re seeing numbers that stretch at the margins of error of any statistical sample, likely can’t be known.

This year’s numbers, as can be seen from the chart below, are much more in line with historical patterns and confirm the sense that last year’s survey was a pure anomaly that produced numbers that must either be ignored or taken with a giant grain of salt. Some of the main findings from the 2010 health insurance survey include:

  • The uninsured rate for working-age Oklahomans (24. 3 percent) is almost twice as high as for children (12.6 percent). Nationally, the uninsured rate is 10.0 percent for children and 22.3 percent for working-age adults;
  • For the Oklahoma population as a whole, just over half the population is covered through employer-based coverage. Just over one in three Oklahomans has public health insurance, whether Medicaid, Medicare, or military health. Oklahoma is a few percentage points below the national average in private health insurance and a few points above the national average in public coverage.
  • For children in Oklahoma, as nationally, public health insurance programs have filled the gap created by declining employer-based coverage.  Slightly less than 50 percent of Oklahoma children are now insured through employer-based coverage, while 40 percent of children are insured by Medicaid.
  • Among working-age adults, just under 60 percent of Oklahomans are insured through employer-based coverage, while less than 5 percent are insured by Medicaid.

Statements from health care advocates, such as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Georgetown Center for Children and Families, point out how the continued declines in employer-sponsored coverage and rising rates of uninsured adults underscore the urgency of the new Affordable Care Act, which aims to increase health insurance coverage through a combination of expanded Medicaid eligibility for adults, subsidies for low-income families to purchase private coverage, and tax credits for small businesses to offer coverage.

Later this month, the Census Bureau will release its findings from the 2009 American Community Survey (ACS), a larger survey that is considered a more reliable source for one-year state-level data on poverty and income. For now, while we may not be able to speak with the certainty that we’d like about the exact number of Oklahomans living in poverty or lacking health insurance, we know that the effects of the recession are all around us, witnessed in the growing demands on private and public safety net providers, in rising hunger and homelessness and despair in communities across the state. As the Oklahoman stated before the release of the latest numbers, in an editorial titled, Poverty, hunger statistics in Oklahoma are alarming: “this is an issue that ought to concern everyone who cares about the collective welfare of their fellow Oklahomans.”


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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