Kentucky poverty rate, percentage without health insurance increase

Kentucky's poverty rate is the fifth highest in the nation, according to new U.S. Census Bureau figures, while the percentage of uninsured Kentuckians has also increased.

Only Mississippi, the District of Columbia, Louisiana and New Mexico led Kentucky in terms of the percentage of its population that is poor. Kentucky's 2006-2008 average is 16.5 percent, up from the 2005-2007 average of 15.7 percent.

Census figures use an average of two years of data in order to provide more reliable estimates.

"If the poverty rate goes up, that means, obviously, there are more people who are struggling economically in the state than ... in previous periods," said James Ziliak, director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky.

Still, he cautioned, "We're only capturing the beginning of the recession with the figures released today."

That means that more Kentuckians will be eligible for state and federal programs that serve the poor, including Medicaid, free and reduced-price school lunches, and K-TAP, which provides financial and medical assistance to needy dependent children in Kentucky and the parents or relatives with whom the children are living

For one person, the Census Bureau defines the poverty level as an annual income of $10,991. For a family of two adults with two children, it is $21,834.

The 2005-2007 percentage of uninsured Kentuckians was 13.8, which increased to 15.1 percent in the period 2006-2008. That was driven by a reduction in the percentage of employers who provide health insurance. In 2005, 59.9 percent of employers provided health insurance, but only 57.6 percent did by the end of 2007.

Ziliak said Kentuckians pay for those without health insurance — through taxes or higher medical premiums "because the hospital has to pass the cost on to everybody else" when the uninsured use hospital emergency rooms to provide primary care.

Kentucky Youth Advocates also weighed in on the new census data yesterday, saying that in 2000, 68 percent of individuals in Kentucky had employer-sponsored health insurance. That share dropped to 63.9 percent in 2005-2006 and to 60.2 percent in 2007-2008.

Although both the poverty center and Kentucky Youth Advocates, a statewide organization that works on behalf of children's issues, used census data on poverty and health insurance, the two organizations used different points of comparison over different time periods.

Terry Brooks, director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said in a release that when the 2009 numbers are calculated, the discouraging numbers are likely to keep coming: "The severity of job loss we've seen and the continued financial crisis in our state suggest we'll see bad news in the numbers for 2009."

The Census Bureau said that, nationwide, real median household income fell 3.6 percent between 2007 and 2008, from $52,163 to $50,303. The nation's official poverty rate was 13.2 percent, up from 12.5 in 2007. The number of those without health insurance coverage rose from 45.7 million in 2007 to 46.3 million in 2008.