By DIANE SMITH and JEFF CLAASSENdianesmith@star-telegram.com
STAR-TELEGRAM/RON T. ENNIS
Household incomes increased slightly and poverty held steady last year in the U.S., while the number of people with no health insurance decreased for the first time in two years, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Tuesday.
A series of economic snapshots indicates that 2007 may have been the last year of economic recovery from the nation’s 2001-02 recession. The numbers do not reflect this year’s economic downturn, exacerbated by high fuel and food costs and a national housing crisis.
"A year ago, the economy was still fairly robust," said Bernard Weinstein, director of the Center for Economic Development and Research at the University of North Texas. "The economy today is in much worse shape than it was a year ago."
Texas, Tarrant County and Fort Worth also saw slight increases in median household incomes and tiny decreases in the poverty rate. But in Arlington, the median income went down slightly and the poverty rate inched up.
And though the number of people with no health insurance declined nationwide, the number went up in Texas. The Lone Star State continues to lead the nation with the highest percentage of people lacking health insurance, at 25.2 percent.
The numbers were drawn from two surveys released Tuesday by the Census Bureau, titled Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2007 and the 2007 American Community Survey. Only cities and counties with more than 65,000 people were included.
Census Bureau data show that the increase in household incomes during the recent economic expansion have been relatively flat, compared with more robust income growth seen after the recessions of the early 1980s and early 1990s.
Median household incomes were slightly higher in 1999 than they were in 2007 when adjusted for inflation, according to the Census Bureau. The median is the point at which half of the incomes are higher and half are lower.
Median incomes increased 3.3 percent in Texas last year, well above the 1.9 percent increase nationwide.
Dallas-Fort Worth has benefited from a diversified economy that includes new jobs and exploration of the Barnett Shale natural gas formation, Weinstein said.
The region’s housing market has not been as hard-hit as in the rest of the nation, and it is cushioned by the defense and information technology industries, he said.
"If I had to pick one place to ride out the recession of 2008-2009, it would be the state of Texas," Weinstein said.
Where there’s a need
In Tarrant County, Arlington was the anomaly, with a 3 percent decrease in household incomes and a 0.2 percent increase in the poverty rate, which is within the survey’s margin of error.
The numbers likely reflect Arlington’s position as an older suburb that has been drawing immigrants and lower-income families for about 10 years, Weinstein said. For 2007, the poverty threshold for a family of four is $21,203.
Tillie Burgin, executive director of Mission Arlington, said 2008 started with a growing demand for help. The queries have continued with jumps in fuel and food prices, she said.
"They are making choices of rent, utilities, gas in the car," Burgin said.
In Fort Worth, the Southside Church of Christ has been working to help struggling families. The requests for help have grown about 10 percent in 2008 compared with 2007.
Daniel Leaf, local missions minister at the church’s food pantry program, said the pantry helps about 400 families a month in south-central Fort Worth.
"When we talk with people we find that . . . the need is more profound," Leaf said.
Lack of health insurance
The percentage of Texans who have no health insurance increased for three consecutive years. The state has long led the nation in that category.
Texas has many immigrants, both legal and illegal, and noncitizens have the highest uninsured rate, according to the census data.
Cuts in previous years to the state’s Children’s Health Insurance Program have also driven up the rate of uninsured, said Frances Deviney, a senior research associate for the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin.
And many people who are eligible for state healthcare programs don’t know how to use the system, which Deviney said has too much red tape.
Nationwide, more people are using Medicaid and other government health insurance programs, one reason the uninsured rate decreased in the U.S., said David Johnson, chief of the Census Bureau’s division of Housing and Household Economic Statistics.
The Fort Worth Northside Community Health Center serves the uninsured with the help of federal grant money. Sixty-four percent of the patients don’t have government or commercial insurance, said Don Campion, the center’s chief operating officer.
More than 80 percent of the center’s patients are Hispanics who live on Fort Worth’s north side, but patients come from across Tarrant County.
"We are seeing a little bit more increase in Medicaid," Campion said. "It looked like it started to trend up in the last part of 2007."
Online: Read the surveys at www.census.gov/prod/2008pubs/p60-235.pdf
DIANE SMITH, 817-390-7675 JEFF CLAASSEN, 817-390-7710