One in seven Americans is living in poverty, the highest number in the half-century that the government has kept such statistics, the Census Bureau announced Thursday.
Last year was the third consecutive year that the poverty rate climbed, in part because of the recession, rising from 13.2 percent in 2008 to 14.3 percent, or 43.6 million people, last year.
Asians were the only ethnic group whose poverty rate did not change substantially; every other race and Hispanics experienced increases in poverty rates.
In addition, 51 million Americans were uninsured, as the number of people with health insurance dropped from 255 million to less than 254 million -- the first decrease since the government started keeping track in 1987. The number would have been worse because 6.5 million fewer people got insurance through their jobs, but it was offset by a leap in government-backed health insurance. More than 30 percent of Americans now get coverage from the government.
"Given all the unemployment we saw, it's the government safety net that's keeping people above the poverty line," Douglas Besharov, a University of Maryland public policy professor and former scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told the Associated Press.
The grim statistics reflect the depth of the recession that began almost three years ago and could have an impact on midterm elections less than two months away.
"These numbers should be a wake-up call," said Peter Edelman, a Georgetown University professor and co-director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy. "These are deeply disturbing numbers."
At organizations where the unemployed come to get help finding a job or seek food, the numbers were no surprise.
"In the decade I've been doing this work, this is a low point," said Jason Perkins-Cohen, executive director of the Job Opportunities Task Force in Baltimore. "We're getting a real feeling of desperation. For sheer numbers, it's a new, unhappy world."
At the nonprofit Action Though Service in Prince William County late Thursday morning, the shelves of the agency's pantry were starting to empty, as the line for help snaked out the door with a few dozen people seeking assistance.
Prince William resident Carol Williams said she has come to the shelter once a month since January, when she was laid off from her job at United Medical Center due to budget woes.
"I worked since I was 15, and, now, for the first time I don't have a job and I can't feed my family," said Williams, 55. "I have a degree; doesn't matter. The jobs aren't there."
Williams said she has been applying for dozens of jobs a week and had about 20 interviews since January. "I think people are scared to hire someone who is not working," she said, adding there also is just a lot more competition because of the high unemployment rate.
A single mother, Williams has five mouths to feed -- children and grandchildren-- ranging in age from 17 months to 28. Williams said she was able to raise three sons on her own, but she now turns to the food pantry at ACTS and her father and friends for help.
"We had no bread, no nothing last Friday because the pantry was closed," she said. "Luckily a friend helped me or we would have had no food for the weekend."
Advocates said they're seeing a lot more people like Williams.
"We have definitely seen many more individuals who are very well-educated, with high degrees, where it's the first time to ever be in a situation to ever have to ask for help for food or shelter," said Vickie Koth, executive director of Good Shepherd Alliance inLoudoun County.
Koth recalls one family of four in particular, where both parents were highly educated -- the mother was a lawyer, and the father was a mortgage broker. "They were in the business of buying and selling homes, and they had three foreclosures within the same span of time and were homeless for the first time.
"We're full all the time and we turn people away every day, and that's always been true. But the types of people that call have changed," Koth said. "Time after time I've heard individuals say, 'I've given to shelters, I've volunteered at food pantries. I've never thought I'd be here myself.' "