WASHINGTON The number of Americans living below the poverty line rose to a record 46 million last year, the government said on Tuesday, underscoring the challenges facing President Barack Obama and Congress as they try to tackle high unemployment and a moribund economy.
The Census Bureau's annual report on income, poverty and health insurance coverage said the national poverty rate climbed for a third consecutive year to 15.1 percent in 2010 as the economy struggled to recover from the recession that began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009.
That marked a 0.8 percent increase from 2009, when there were 43.6 million Americans living in poverty.
The number of poor Americans in 2010 was the largest in the 52 years that the Census Bureau has been publishing poverty estimates, the report said, while the poverty rate was the highest since 1993.
The specter of economic deterioration also afflicted working Americans who saw their median income decline 2.3 percent to an annual $49,445.
About 1.5 million fewer Americans were covered by employer-sponsored health insurance plans, while the number of people covered by government health insurance increased by nearly 2 million.
All told, the number of Americans with no health insurance hovered at 49.9 million, up slightly from 49 million in 2010.
The economic deterioration depicted by the figures is likely to have continued into 2011 as economic growth diminished, unemployment remained stuck above 9 percent and fears grew of a possible double-dip recession.
The report of rising poverty coincides with Obama's push for a $450 billion job creation package, and deliberations by a congressional "super committee" tasked with cutting at least $1.2 trillion from the budget deficit over 10 years.
Faced with deteriorating job approval ratings, the president is trying to convince Republicans in Congress to support his package.
Analysts said poverty-related issues have relatively little hold on politicians in Washington but hoped the new figures would encourage the bipartisan super committee to avoid deficit cuts that would hurt the poor.
The United States has long had one of the highest poverty rates in the developed world. Among 34 countries tracked by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, only Chile, Israel and Mexico have higher rates of poverty.
(Editing by Ross Colvin and Doina Chiacu)