Census: Fewer residents have insurance

North Carolina added about 180,000 people to the rolls of the uninsured in the past two years, a departure from national numbers that showed a decrease for the first time since 2001.

More than 1.4 million North Carolinians went without health insurance last year, a 2.1 percent increase from the last time the Census Bureau released such numbers.

Nationally, however, the number of Americans without health insurance dropped by more than 1 million, from 47 million in 2006 to 45.7 in 2007. Experts credit government programs, such as Medicaid, for picking up the slack.

“Private insurance has been falling (and) public insurance definitely went up,” said David Johnson, who oversees the Census division that produced the statistics.

North Carolina's numbers, some say, show a continued struggle to overcome the state's loss of manufacturing jobs.

Some estimates say North Carolina has lost almost 80,000 jobs since 2001, most of them in manufacturing, textile and apparel industries.

“This, I think, is the slow grinding down of the manufacturing economy,” said Owen Furuseth, an expert in metro studies with the UNC Charlotte. “We have lost a lot of jobs in this state, jobs that once had good benefits. We are still feeling it.”

Census data released Tuesday showed the nation's poverty rate held steady last year at 12.5 percent, while its median income increased slightly to $50,740.

In the Carolinas, poverty rates and income levels remained virtually unchanged. The number of North Carolinians living in poverty was 14.3 percent. In South Carolina, the rate was 15 percent.

Locally, more than 185,000 people in Charlotte area lived below the federal poverty line in 2007, up from about 178,000 the year before. While more are struggling, the poverty rate actually fell slightly from 11.5 percent to 11.4 percent.

Meanwhile the region's median income level – when adjusted for inflation – increased to $53,211, up from $51,796 in 2006.

Some see the numbers as a kind of scorecard on President Bush's stewardship of the economy at the kitchen-table level. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has seized upon them to argue for wholesale change.

But White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the household income and health insurance numbers are definitely good news.

“It's clear that the long period of strong economic growth we were in had a positive impact for most Americans,” he said. “Obviously today we're dealing with higher energy prices and the downturn in housing, but the economy is showing enough resilience to keep growing in spite of those challenges.”

Still, Census officials caution that the current numbers only go as far as the end of last year, before the current economic downturn gathered force. Some see that as ominous news for the future.

“Just wait until next year. I think the numbers of poor will be staggering,” said Annabelle Suddreth, executive director of A Child's Place, a non-profit that works with homeless children in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system.

Suddreth watched as the number of homeless kids in school increased by 35 percent over the past two years. She said officials are predicting similar surge next year.

“There are a lot of people struggling out there right now,” she said. The Associated Press contributed.