WASHINGTON -- Continued high unemployment drove the number of Americans living in poverty to a record high in 2010 and dragged down median household income for the third straight year since the Great Recession first darkened the nation's economy in 2007.
More than a year after the economic recovery officially began in June 2009, 46.2 million people had annual earnings below the poverty line last year, up from 43.6 million the previous year, according to new U.S. Census Bureau figures released Tuesday. That's the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty estimates have been published.
The 2010 U.S. poverty rate of 15.1 percent was the highest since 1993, and it was up nearly a full percentage point from 2009. Poverty rates increased for all racial groups except Asians.
Government analysts said the problem is rooted in the 86.7 million working-age adults who were unemployed for at least a week last year, compared with 83.3 million in 2009.
That spike of 3.4 million people "might be the single most important factor contributing to the increase in the poverty rate," said Trudi Renwick, the head of poverty statistics at the Census Bureau.
The numbers reflect the sputtering labor market from 2009 to 2010, when payroll jobs fell by 600,000, unemployment rose to 9.6 percent and the share of people unemployed for six months or more grew from 31.2 percent to 43.3 percent.
That labor market decline also helps explain why median household income -- the amount at which half of U.S. households earn more or less -- continued to fall in 2010, while the number of Americans without health insurance continued to rise.
Census estimates show that median annual income dropped 2.3 percent, or $1,154, last year to $49,445. Average real hourly earnings fell from $10.34 in June 2009, when the recovery officially began, to $10.26 in July 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Meanwhile, another 900,000 people lost health insurance last year, pushing the number of uninsured Americans to nearly 50 million, an all-time high. A continued decline in job-based health care helped drive those numbers.
"All of this deterioration in the labor market caused income to drop, poverty to rise and people to lose their health insurance," said Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, who said the worst may be yet to come.
"There is no relief in sight," Shierholz said. "We can't expect any substantial improvement in the income and poverty numbers for a while."
Ron Haskins, an aide in the George W. Bush White House who's now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said likewise: "The main message of today's release ... is that if we don't like the way things are now, we better get used to it."