WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In what has become a recurring theme in America’s long slog back from the 2007-09 recession, most U.S. households again saw no noticeable increase in their income last year.
A report from the Census Bureau on Tuesday showed the country’s median household income edged up just $180 last year to $51,939, a gain deemed statistically insignificant.
Income at the median, meaning half the country earned more and half earned less, has declined nearly $5,000 since 2007 when the nation fell into a deep downturn.
The figures make it easier to understand why many Americans think the United States remains in recession and why President Barack Obama’s approval ratings have hovered near 40 percent.
Obama took office a few months before the recession ended in June 2009, and a frustratingly slow economic recovery has vexed his presidency and could weigh on his Democratic Party in November’s congressional elections.
Congress and the White House raised taxes on most Americans in 2013 while cutting back government spending, and the austerity was a major factor holding back economic growth.
“We are using a coffee cup to dig ourselves out of a big hole,” said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington.
Tuesday’s report, however, did point to some encouraging developments.
The share of Americans living in poverty fell for the first time since 2006, dropping a half percentage point to 14.5 percent. The Hispanic population registered the biggest decline.
Nevertheless, the poverty rate was still 2 percentage points higher than it was seven years earlier.
Last year’s decrease appeared driven by fewer people relying on part-time work, as the survey found an additional 2.8 million Americans were working full-time during the year.
“That seems to be the main thing,” said Charles Nelson, an official at the Census Bureau.
A family of two adults and two children is considered to be living in poverty if they earn less than $23,624 per year, according to the Census Bureau.
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The White House said the poverty rate would be even lower if it took into account food stamps and tax breaks for low-income Americans, but it acknowledged that the typical family hasn’t seen its income recover from the recession.
“The president will continue to do everything in his power to ensure that hard work pays off with decent wages,” White House economists Jason Furman and Betsey Stevenson said in a blog post.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Republican who unveiled an anti-poverty plan in July, said he hoped the report would spur Washington to act. “If this report tells us anything, it’s that we can do better,” he said.
The Census data also suggested the percentage of people who did not have health insurance decreased last year.
One measure of the uninsured rate fell to 14.5 percent, down two-tenths of a percentage point from 2012. Under a new methodology for measuring the rate which will be used going forward, even less of the country lacked insurance.
The 2013 decline is likely due to an improving economy and to some provisions of a health insurance overhaul championed by Obama, such as more young people signing up for healthcare under their parents’ policies.
Also, some states expanded health insurance programs for the poor in 2013 - ahead of the timetable mandated by Obama’s healthcare law.
The law appears to have brought down the uninsured rate this year by requiring most Americans to have coverage or pay a fine.
In a separate report, the National Center for Health Statistics said the first quarter uninsured rate was 13.1 percent, or 41 million people, compared with 14.4 percent in 2013.
Reporting by Jason Lange and Susan Heavey in Washington; Additional reporting by Caroline Humer in New York; Editing by Paul Simao and Cynthia Osterman
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