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Forum Post: 2009: income down, poverty up

Posted 2 years ago on March 17, 2012, 8:52 a.m. EST by flip (7101)
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Every September brings the release of the Census Bureau’s annual income, poverty, and health insurance figures. Even in the best of times, they can make for sad reading—but 2009 was a real bust for the American masses. Incomes were down, poverty was up, and millions fell off the insurance rolls. It’s not the worst performance surrounding a recession in modern history—that honor belongs to the downturn of the early 1980s. But that carnage was spread out over five years, by the official Census count. We’re only two years into this mess, and while the recession is formally over (for now), there’s little doubt that 2010 and 2011 will be miserable years.

Before proceeding, a few words on where the stats come from. They’re drawn from a special edition of the Bureau’s monthly Current Population Survey (CPS). The regular survey, which covers about 60,000 households, is what the monthly unemployment figures, among other things, are based on. This special survey, done every March, covers 100,000 households. This is a very large sample, and though it’s far from perfect, it provides an excellent view of monetary well-being. It’s different from the yearly American Community Survey (ACS), whose results were released in late September, which covers many similar topics in great detail, and is comparable to the decennial Census (the one done every ten years). The ACS’s history doesn’t go back anywhere near as far as the CPS, making it difficult to analyze long-term trends consistently. The right has it out for these surveys—ostensibly because, unlike the decennial Census, it’s not specifically authorized by the Constitution, but more likely because they’re ignorant dopes who hate the truth.

And now a closer look at 2009.

Incomes: flat to down

The median income of all households—the income level at middle of the distribution, meaning that half the population is richer, and half, poorer— fell by almost 1% last year, but the move was deemed not large enough to be statistically significant. That is, the likely error in the estimate is larger than the change itself. But the overall number was helped considerably by a near-6% rise in incomes for households headed by someone 65 or over. Under-65 households saw their income fall by 1.3%, and this did pass the test of statistical significance. Especially hard hit were the young, foreign born non-citizens, and blacks. So-called Hispanics held their own. For several reasons, the Census numbers understat