Georgians see hint of a rebound

Things are looking up in Georgia — from the bottom of a deep hole. That, more or less, was the picture that emerged Wednesday with the Census Bureau’s yearly report on household income, poverty and the number of people who have health insurance.

Median household income in Georgia rose by 4.2 percent from 2010 to 2011, but it remained 7 percent below the peak reached in 2006.

The ranks of the poor and of people without health coverage shrank slightly, but by those measures, too, Georgians were much better off before the recession.

“It’s always good to see the numbers moving in the right direction,” said Greg Streib, a professor of public management and policy at Georgia State University. “But it’s a small change, it’s not a trend, and people are still really suffering.”

According to the census report, median household income in the state was $45,973 in 2011; the poverty rate was 18.4 percent; and 19.2 percent of Georgians had no health coverage.

“This is pretty good news that the number of uninsured hasn’t continued to expand,” said Bill Custer, a health care expert at Georgia State. “The effects of the recession have effectively worked their way through.”

However, Georgia has lagged behind much of the nation during this weak economic recovery. For 2011 the state had the seventh highest rate of people without health insurance. It had the sixth highest poverty rate, trailed only by Louisiana, New Mexico, the District of Columbia, Arkansas and South Carolina.

Comparing poverty rates before and after the recession, only one state, Nevada, was hit harder by the economic crisis. Looking at 2-year averages, which are less subject than 1-year figures to random fluctuations, Georgia’s poverty rate surged by more than 40 percent from 2006-7 to 2010-11.

The latest numbers show 1.78 million people in poverty, a drop of 31,000 people from 2010.

Experts say the state’s stubbornly high poverty rate reflects the degree to which the recession disabled some of the state’s major economic engines, including real estate and construction. Although there’s no data to prove that people are staying in poverty longer, some of those in the business of helping say that’s what they’re seeing.

Barbara Duffy, director of North Fulton Community Charities, said that before the recession many people needed only a little help. Now, she said, many become long-term clients.

“The families have more extensive need, they’re deeper in the hole,” Duffy said. “There’s no quick fixes anymore.”

Carlette Jones has been struggling financially for most of this year. During the boom construction years, she had stable employment doing accounting. When she lost her job in March, “everything just crashed.” The fact that she was coming out of a divorce didn’t help, either.

“I did without everything. I’m barely holding on to my car,” said Jones, 49, of Roswell. “It’s hard. It’s frustrating. It’s a lonely feeling, an embarrassing feeling.”

When the landlord started an eviction process, Jones turned up Tuesday at the North Fulton agency, asking for money and food.

Over at the Norcross Cooperative Ministry, executive director Shirley Cabe said the charity regularly runs out of assistance money within the first weeks of the month. Donations, also strained by the economy, have dropped from $49,343 in April to $37,428 last month.

Defining poverty is complex and open to debate — often with sharp political overtones. The way the government measures poverty has been criticized for decades as overly simplistic.

For example, the official measure does not count as income many types of assistance, including food stamps, that millions of families rely on to supplement their incomes. The number of Georgia households receiving food stamps more than doubled from 2007 to 2011, to 812,078.

On the other hand, the federal poverty formula does not reflect the taxes people pay or certain necessary expenses such as child care.

In recent years, various groups have proposed different ways of measuring poverty. In 2010, the Census Bureau began testing a new tool called the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which factors in many added variables — in both the income and expense columns.

For 2010, the U.S. poverty rate as determined by the official measure was 15.1 percent. Using the supplemental measure instead, it was 16.0 percent.

In November the bureau will release the U.S. poverty rate for 2011 as calculated by the supplemental measure.

Insurance coverage, too, is a hot political topic, especially in this presidential campaign season.

The national rate for the uninsured is 15.7 percent, down from 16.3 percent in 2010.

Some 1.86 million Georgians lacked insurance last year. That’s down from nearly 2 million in 2009, the census report shows.

The drop has been driven in part by young adults gaining coverage under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which allows parents to keep children on their insurance up to age 26.

In recent months, elected officials, health care providers, advocates and community leaders have aired their opinions as Gov. Nathan Deal weighed whether to expand Georgia’s massive Medicaid program under the health care law.

An expansion of the government program would extend health care coverage to an estimated 650,000-plus low-income Georgians. Deal recently said, however, the state can’t afford to expand Medicaid in its current form. Medicaid, which covers roughly 1.7 million people in the state, is already facing a shortfall of hundreds of millions dollars.

Beyond that, teaching people to live on government assistance isn’t helping them or the economy, said Ron Bachman, CEO of Healthcare Visions, which promotes free-market health care solutions.

“The question ultimately is do you want to have a dependency society or do you want an opportunity society?” Bachman said.

But Tim Sweeney, a health care analyst with the Atlanta-based Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said that without expanded Medicaid coverage, hospitals will continue to shift the costs of caring for the uninsured onto people with private insurance.

“It will just continue the cycle of making private insurance less affordable,” he said.

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