WASHINGTON - The nation's poverty rate remained stuck at 15 percent last year despite America's slowly reviving economy, a discouraging lack of improvement for the record 46.5 million poor and an unwelcome benchmark for President Barack Obama's recovery plans.
More than 1 in 7 Americans were living in poverty, not statistically different from the 46.2 million of 2011 and the sixth straight year the rate had failed to improve, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday. Median income for the nation's households was $51,017, also unchanged from the previous year after two consecutive annual declines, while the share of people without health insurance did improve but only a bit, from 15.7 percent to 15.4 percent.
"We're in the doldrums, with high poverty and inequality as the new normal for the foreseeable future," said Timothy Smeeding, an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who specializes in income inequality. "The fact we've seen no real recovery in employment and wages means we've just flatlined."
Mississippi had the highest share of its residents in poverty, at 22 percent, according to rough calculations by the Census Bureau. It was followed by Louisiana, New Mexico and Arkansas. On the other end of the scale, New Hampshire had the lowest share, at 8.1 percent.
The last significant decline in the national poverty rate came in 2006, during the Bush administration and before the housing bubble burst and the recession hit. In 2011, the rate dipped to 15 percent from 15.1 percent, but census officials said that change was statistically insignificant.
For the past year, the official poverty line was an annual income of $23,492 for a family of four.
The Census Bureau's annual report offers a snapshot of the economic well-being of U.S. households for 2012, when the unemployment rate averaged 8.1 percent after reaching an average high of 9.6 percent in 2010. Typically, the poverty rate tends to move in a similar direction as the unemployment rate, so many analysts had been expecting a modest decline in poverty.
The latest census data show that the gap between rich and poor was largely unchanged over the past year, having widened since 2007 to historic highs.
On Monday, Obama called attention to what he described as economic improvements - the nation's gross domestic product did rise by 2.8 percent last year - and said congressional Republicans would reverse recent gains if they took uncompromising stands in connection with looming budget deadlines.
Some GOP conservatives have been demanding a delay of Obama's new health care law as the price for supporting continued federal government spending. The House is also expected to consider a bill this week that would cut food stamps for the poor by an estimated $4 billion annually - 10 times the size of cuts passed by the Democratic Senate - and allow states to put broad new work requirements in place for recipients.