August 27, 2008
Economic Numbers in Utah a Mixed Bag
By James Thalman Deseret News
Utah's overall poverty rate and the number of Utahns doing without insurance declined a bit in 2007, while the median household income ticked up slightly, according to annual census data released Tuesday.But local economists and nonprofit advocacy groups say the numbers also show that the steadily improving economy isn't improving the lives of most Utahns.
"The lack of a substantial increase in incomes over the course of this past economic recovery, along with our failure to reduce poverty, show that the benefits of economic growth in Utah have not been broadly shared," economist Allison Rowland said.
"We know that a lot of families in our state were already struggling to make ends meet, even during the economic good times," Rowland said. "Now the price of basic purchases such as food and gasoline are rising, and family incomes just aren't keeping up."
And although Utah's poverty rate dipped below 10 percent, put in context of the past six years, progress toward reducing the state's poverty rate remains flat, the U.S. Census Bureau reports in its annual American Community Survey of the fiscal status of Americans during the 2007 calendar year.
Just over 15 percent of Utahns (about 340,000) didn't have health insurance in 2007. Compared to 2006, the difference is statistically insignificant. The past six years, however, the trend has been up; 12.9 percent of Utahns didn't have insurance in 2001.
The number of uninsured children increased by 2.9 percent, according to the survey, although the numbers are taken before Utah legislators permanently opened enrollment in state's Children's Health Insurance Program earlier this year. That move is expected to reduce the number of uninsured children.
Inflation-adjusted median household income improved slightly -- to $55,974, or an increase of about $350. If data is limited to typical wage-earning households in Utah, income remained stagnant the past year and is almost equal to incomes reported in 2001.
All in all, the data shows Utah pretty much static across the three general categories targeted in the survey. If refined to include race, age and number of persons per household, the local economic picture dims even more.
Nationwide, 37.3 million people -- or 12.5 percent of the population -- fell below the official federal poverty threshold in 2007, which is not statistically different than the 12.3 percent who were in poverty in 2006.
Meanwhile, the number of people without health insurance declined to 45.7 million from last year's record 47 million, the census report says. Census officials and health insurance advocates attributed the decrease in the number of uninsured to the growing popularity of government-sponsored health insurance, including Medicaid and the state/federal Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
The number of people under 65 who are insured by government- funded health insurance increased by more than 2 million to 48.6 million.
The survey is more cloud than silver lining to health policy data analysts and child welfare advocates in the state.
Although insurance coverage improved in 2007, said Karen Crompton, executive director of Voices For Utah Children, "between the depths of the recession in 2001 and the economic peak in 2007, the number of uninsured Utahns increased."
The steep increases in the number of uninsured children leveled off in 2006 and 2007, Crompton said, thanks in large part to additional $4 million lawmakers approved for CHIP. The funding and a legislative commitment to keep enrollment open year-round will no doubt continue to improve access to health care for a significant number of the 70,000 Utah children -- about twice as many as currently enrolled -- in low-income families who still don't have coverage.
The study further veils Utah's ongoing problem -- wages paid here don't support a reasonable standard of living.
Utahns make an average of $12.70 per hour. To pay rent on a two- bedroom apartment and not pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing, individuals need to earn $13.36 per hour, according to a recent statewide study by low-income advocates in Utah.
Inflation-adjusted wages show workers earning less now than they did in 1979 ($12.57). State and private homeless advocates key on that statistic, saying that the number of homeless in shelters or technically chronically on the street -- about 2,000 on any given day -- is easily surpassed by the number of people forced into transitional housing recently by job loss and foreclosures. Those numbers don't include those whose transitional housing is their cars or outdoor camps.
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