WASHINGTON — One in seven Americans is living in poverty, the highest number in the half-century that the government has kept such statistics, the Census Bureau said Wednesday.
Last year was the third consecutive year that the poverty rate climbed, in part because of the recession, rising from 13.2 percent in 2008 to 14.3 percent, or 43.6 million people, last year.
In addition, 51 million Americans were uninsured, as the number of people with health insurance dropped from 255 million to less than 254 million — the first decrease since the government started keeping track in 1987.
The census report provides the most detailed picture yet of the impact of the recession and unemployment on incomes, especially at the bottom of the scale. It also indicated that the temporary increases in aid provided in last year's stimulus bill eased the burdens on millions of families.
And the face of the poor has changed ominously. Those falling below the poverty line today are likely to be full-time workers who cannot earn enough to meet their needs or middle-class workers driven into the ranks of the poor by lost jobs or shrinking incomes.
More than 300,000 Floridians joined the ranks of the working poor last year.
In 2008, Florida's poverty rate was slightly lower than the national average. This year, according to U.S. Census estimates, it was slightly higher than the national level as it jumped to 14.6 percent, up from 13.1 percent in 2008.
That translates to about 2.68 million Floridians in poverty, up from 2.37 million a year earlier.
As recently as 2006, Florida's poverty rate was 11.1 percent, representing just under 2 million people.
Broken down by state, Mississippi had the highest share of poor people, at 23.1 percent, according to rough calculations by the Census Bureau. It was followed by Arizona, New Mexico, Arkansas and Georgia. On the other end of the scale, New Hampshire had the lowest share, at 7.8 percent.
The higher poverty levels meant higher costs for government programs such as food stamps and unemployment compensation, potentially heavier tax burdens for the country as a whole, and financial pressures for millions of Americans — especially those who were previously more fortunate.
The poverty threshold in 2009 was $10,956 for one person and $21,954 for a family of four.
In a statement, President Barack Obama called 2009 a tough year for working families but said it could have been worse. "Because of the Recovery Act and many other programs providing tax relief and income support to a majority of working families — and especially those most in need — millions of Americans were kept out of poverty last year," Obama said.
David Johnson, the chief of the Census Bureau's household economics division, estimated that expanded unemployment benefits helped keep 3.3 million people out of poverty last year.
He said demographic changes, too, were a factor as many families "doubled up" in single homes and young adults ages 25 to 34 moved back in with their parents to save money.
An additional 7.8 million people would have been counted above the poverty line if food stamps and tax credits were included as income, Johnson said.
"These numbers should be a wake-up call," said Peter Edelman, a Georgetown University professor and co-director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy. "These are deeply disturbing numbers."
At organizations where the unemployed come to get help finding a job or seek food, the numbers were no surprise.
"In the decade I've been doing this work, this is a low point," said Jason Perkins-Cohen, executive director of the Job Opportunities Task Force in Baltimore. "We're getting a real feeling of desperation. For sheer numbers, it's a new, unhappy world."
At the nonprofit Action Though Service in Prince William County, Va., Thursday morning, the shelves of the agency's pantry were starting to empty, as the line for help snaked out the door with a few dozen people seeking assistance.
Prince William resident Carol Williams said she has come to the shelter once a month since January, when she was laid off from her job at United Medical Center due to budget woes.
"I worked since I was 15, and, now, for the first time I don't have a job and I can't feed my family," said Williams, 55. "I have a degree; doesn't matter. The jobs aren't there."
Williams said she has been applying for dozens of jobs a week and had about 20 interviews since January. "I think people are scared to hire someone who is not working," she said, adding there also is just a lot more competition because of the high unemployment rate.
A single mother, Williams has five mouths to feed — children and grandchildren — ranging in age from 17 months to 28. She was able to raise three sons on her own, but she now turns to the food pantry for help.
Advocates said they're seeing a lot more people like Williams.
"We have definitely seen many more individuals who are very well-educated, with high degrees, where it's the first time to ever be in a situation to ever have to ask for help for food or shelter," said Vickie Koth, executive director of Good Shepherd Alliance in Loudoun County, Va.
Koth recalls one family of four in particular, where both parents were highly educated — the mother was a lawyer, and the father was a mortgage broker. "They were in the business of buying and selling homes, and they had three foreclosures within the same span of time and were homeless for the first time.
"We're full all the time and we turn people away every day, and that's always been true. But the types of people that call have changed," Koth said. "Time after time I've heard individuals say, 'I've given to shelters, I've volunteered at food pantries. I've never thought I'd be here myself.'"
Times staff writer Jeff Harrington contributed to this report, which contains information from the Washington Post, New York Times and Associated Press.