WASHINGTON -- Despite the end of the recession, the number of poor people in the United States increased last year by 1.2 million, to 36.9 million, increasing three times as fast as the overall population, the Census Bureau reported yesterday.
The number of poor people was higher than in any year since 1962, when John F. Kennedy was president. In that year, of course, the nation's population was much smaller, and the poor accounted for a larger proportion of the total population: 21 percent in 1962, as against 14.5 percent last year.
Census Bureau officials and economists said the rise in poverty last year reflected lingering unemployment and a slow recovery from the last recession, which ran from July 1990 to March 1991.
The poverty rate last year was 0.3 percent higher than in 1991, and it was the highest since the 15.2 percent level recorded in 1983.
At the same time, the Census Bureau reported that the number of Americans without health insurance rose 2 million last year, to 37.4 million. President Clinton has repeatedly cited such statistics in asserting that the federal government should guarantee health insurance coverage for all Americans.
The new poverty data reflect trends already evident in other statistics. Unemployment last year averaged 7.4 percent, up from 6.7 percent in 1991, the year the recession ended.
Household income, after adjusting for inflation, declined last year in the Northeast, but was virtually unchanged in other regions and in the nation as a whole. But nationwide, a series of small declines from 1989 to 1992, cut the real purchasing power of the typical household's income by $2,000, to $30,786 in 1992.
Overall, the number of poor Americans rose 3.3 percent last year, while the total population rose just 1.1 percent.
For years, the Census Bureau has been saying that the high poverty rates for blacks resulted, in part, from the dissolution of many black families. But last year the bureau also found a significant increase in the poverty rate for black married couples, to 13 percent from 11 percent.
A family of four was classified as poor if it had cash income less than $14,335 last year. A family of three was poor if its income was less than $11,186. The official poverty levels are updated each year to reflect changes in the Consumer Price Index. Though living costs vary widely across the country, the poverty level is the same nationwide.
As defined by the government, income includes wages and salaries, Social Security and welfare payments, but does not include the value of food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid or health insurance provided by employers. Counting these noncash benefits would make the poverty rate seem lower but would not change the trends in poverty observed in recent years, Census Bureau officials said.
"The rich clearly did get richer" from 1967 to 1992, said Daniel H. Weinberg, chief of income and poverty statistics at the Census Bureau. But he found some preliminary evidence to suggest that the trend toward greater inequality in the distribution of income, after accelerating in the early 1980s, had begun to slow.
Offering historical perspective, the Census Bureau said that the poverty rate fluctuated between 11.1 percent and 14.2 percent from 1967 to 1981. It peaked at 15.2 percent in 1983 -- the highest since the 17.3 percent recorded in 1965 -- and then declined to 12.8 percent in 1989. It has risen each year since then, to 13.5 percent in 1990, 14.2 percent in 1991 and 14.5 percent in 1992.
The data in the report are drawn from interviews with 60,000 households chosen to be representative of the entire population.
The 33.3 percent poverty rate for blacks last year was nearly three times the 11.6 percent rate for whites, the Census Bureau said. The rate for Hispanic people, who may be of any race, was 29.3 percent last year. For Asian Americans, it was 12.5 percent.
Whites account for two-thirds of the poor, even though their poverty rate was lower than the rates for Hispanic people and blacks.