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The Associated Press September 28, 2010, 5:49PM ET

NC's poverty rate grows to 16.3 percent in 2009

The percentage of North Carolina residents living in poverty grew in 2009 in keeping with the national economic downturn, while the number of insured children actually increased, the U.S. Census Bureau said Tuesday in releasing state-by-state data.

The bureau estimated through its American Community Survey that 16.3 percent of all North Carolina residents, or roughly 1.5 million people, had income last year below the poverty threshold. The level for a family of four was $22,050 for 2009. In 2008, the state's poverty rate was 14.6 percent, or more than 1.3 million people.

The North Carolina Justice Center, an advocacy group for the poor, argues the poverty rate will keeping rising unless Congress extends unemployment benefits and job training for the poor in the federal stimulus package. The General Assembly also can help when it reconvenes in January. It can extend child-care subsidies and reform the tax system so the state can tap into revenues gained by the expanding service economy and by reducing corporate tax breaks.

"The economic hardship that families are facing are most often mitigated by a public system that serves working families," said Alexandra Forter-Sirota, a policy analyst at the N.C. Budget & Tax Center, an arm of the Justice Center. "There's a real opportunity for state policy makers to think revenue reform."

North Carolina's poverty rate was higher than the national level of 14.3 percent, which is not surprising given that the state unemployment was above the national rate last year at more than 10 percent. A year ago, the U.S. poverty rate was 13.3 percent. North Carolina was one of 31 states with increases in both the number and percentage of people in poverty last year, a Census Bureau release said.

The bureau also estimated the state's median household income at $43,674 in 2009, or a 5.6 percent decrease from 2008. Only Michigan and Florida had a sharper decline. The U.S. median income fell 2.9 percent to $50,221.

A greater percentage of children in North Carolina had health insurance last year. The percentage of those under age 19 in the state classified as uninsured fell from 9.9 percent to 8.7 percent, the bureau said. North Carolina was one of 17 states that saw a decrease.

More children nationwide qualified for public health insurance because the children's poverty rate grew. The 2009 federal stimulus law and reauthorization of the federal-state health insurance program for children of low-income parents also likely raised the enrollment in public plans, the Census Bureau said.

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