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New data released today by the Census Department show the percentage of Americans living below the poverty line jumped to 14.3% in 2009, an increase of 1.1% over 2008 and the highest rate since 1994.

In a report that showed in stark terms the real human toll of the recession on the lower classes, 8.8 million families were found to have lived in poverty last year, representing 11.1% of all American families. That’s an increase of 700,000 families since 2008. Perhaps most troubling is the jump in the percentage of children living in poverty, from 19% to 20.7%. In all, close to 15.5 million children lived below the poverty line.

The poverty threshold for 2009 was defined as an income of $21,954 for a family of four. The threshold is updated by the Census Bureau every year and takes into account inflation and the Consumer Price Index.

The report, titled Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States, wasn’t all bad news. Real median household income held more or less steady at approximately $50,000. And while the number of Americans without health insurance jumped to 50.6 million from 46.3 million (an increase of 1.3%), the percentage of uninsured children stayed more or less steady at 10%. That number is expected to drop in the coming years as health care reforms take effect.

Indeed, the White House struck an optimistic tone on its official blog, noting that the jump in poverty was lower than expected, that middle-class incomes stayed steady and that median incomes for full-time workers rose. The White House credited the Recovery Act for blunting the impact of the economic downturn, and President Obama told reporters that “the data released today also remind us that a historic recession does not have to translate into historic increases in family economic insecurity.”

Still, don’t expect things to get better anytime soon. A press release from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, while echoing Obama’s praise of the Recovery Act, projected that poverty was likely to stay high in 2010 and rise again in 2011.

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