WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Fewer Americans went without health insurance last year for the first time since President George W. Bush took office as more people received government coverage, U.S. officials said on Tuesday.
The official U.S. poverty rate remained stable even as a higher percentage of children were classified as impoverished, while U.S. median household income rose a bit in 2007, the U.S. Census Bureau also reported.
It said 15.3 percent of Americans had no public or private health insurance in 2007, down from 15.8 percent in 2006. A total of 45.7 million were uninsured, reduced from 47 million.
Health care is a key issue in the U.S. presidential campaign, with both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain proposing to fix what both call a broken system.
The percentage of people covered through their jobs fell slightly, but the number getting coverage through the Medicaid state-federal program rose by 1.3 million people, the same figure as the total drop in uninsured people.
“A lot of the fall is due to the increase in the health insurance from public health insurance,” David Johnson, who heads the Census Bureau’s housing and household economic statistics division, told reporters.
In 2007, 8.1 million or 11 percent of children under 18 were uninsured, down from 8.7 million and 11.7 percent in 2006.
Real median household income edged up 1.3 percent from 2006 to 2007, reaching $50,233.
The official U.S. poverty rate in 2007 was 12.5 percent — almost the same as the 12.3 percent reported in 2006, the Census Bureau said. In 2007, 37.3 million people were in poverty, up from 36.5 million a year earlier, it said.
The poverty rate for children rose to 18 percent in 2007 from 17.4 percent in 2006, the agency said.
The poverty threshold in 2007 was defined as annual income of $21,203 for a family of four, $16,530 for a family of three, $13,540 for a family of two and $10,590 for individuals.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto saw the report as positive. “The long period of strong economic growth we were in had a positive impact for most Americans,” he said.
“To take one ounce of comfort from these statistics would be deluding yourself,” said Sister Carol Keehan, who heads the nonprofit Catholic Health Association of the United States.
McCain favors a $5,000 tax credit per family to help buy insurance and ending tax breaks for employer-provided coverage, saying this would cut the number of uninsured people.
He said in a statement, “Today’s announcement reminds us that Americans are suffering in a struggling economy. Too many of our neighbors are living in poverty, too many can’t find a job, and too many are living without health insurance.”
Obama favors expanding public programs and a program to allow individuals and small businesses to buy health care similar to that available to federal employees.
Obama used the new data to criticize Bush as well as McCain, who he said would continue Bush’s economic policies.
“Another 816,000 Americans fell into poverty in 2007 — including nearly 500,000 children, bringing the total increase in Americans in poverty under President Bush to 5.7 million. And on Bush’s watch, an additional 7.2 million Americans have fallen into the ranks of the uninsured,” Obama said in a statement.
Bush twice vetoed legislation that would have expanded a popular children’s health program that covers millions of children in low- and moderate-income families. Bush last year signed a temporary extension of the program, leaving its fate in the hands of the next president and Congress.