ATLANTA -- New census data shows that Georgia’s poverty rate was the third highest in the country in 2010, up two spots from last year, with more than 1.8 million residents counted among the poor.
The only states with higher poverty rates in 2010 were Louisiana and Mississippi. Nationally, 15.1 percent of Americans were living in poverty last year.
Georgia also ranked eighth in the nation in the number of uninsured residents, at a rate of 19.4 percent. Roughly 1.9 million Georgians did not have health insurance last year when the state joined a challenge to President Barack Obama’s health care plan, meant in part to address rising numbers of people without health insurance.
Only Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, South Carolina and Texas had higher rates of uninsured residents.
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Nationally, the ranks of the poor have swelled to a record 46.2 million, amounting to nearly 1 in 6 Americans, and the number without health insurance has reached 49.9 million, the most in over two decades.
University of Georgia demographer Doug Bachtel said there is a clear correlation between the rise of Georgians living in poverty and the number of uninsured residents.
“If you’re living below the poverty level, you probably ... don’t have a good job,” Bachtel explained. “You’re not going to have any excess money to buy your own insurance. They’re not into preventive care.”
Georgia’s population swelled to nearly 9.7 million, according to the 2010 Census, an increase of more than 1.5 million people. The state became the country’s ninth most populous and grew at a rate of 18.3 percent, outpacing the national growth of 9.7 percent.
While the growth has meant an additional seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, it has also had negative effects. Alan Essig, executive director of the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, said the new figures show that Georgians are severely feeling the effects of the economy, made worse by state budget cuts
“That makes it harder for these struggling families to get by,” Essig said in a statement. “We need jobs and economic investment through a balanced approach that includes revenue at both the state and federal levels, not a cuts-only approach that sends more people into poverty.”
According to the latest data from the state Department of Human Services, the rise in poverty is being reflected in the number of people requesting food stamps. The number of Georgians on food stamps has increased every year since 2007, and in 2010 stood at more than 590,000 households -- nearly 1.4 million people. Those figures are up from 2009, when more than 497,000 households, or 1.2 million people were in poverty.
The state’s main public hospital has also felt the strain. Grady Health System Chairman Pete Correll said emergency room visits to Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta are up 14 percent this year.
“People put off care if they don’t’ have insurance, and then it spins out of control,” he said. “It’s our most expensive venue. People don’t know they have any other options, and in fact, they may not. So they just show up here knowing they’ll get treatment.”
Correll said the hospital went from being profitable in 2009, to breaking even last year, to losing $18 million in the first six months of 2011.
The decline is attributable to a rise in emergency room visits by patients who are unable to pay for care. Correll said Grady provides about $25 million in free care to uninsured residents who don’t live in Fulton or DeKalb counties, the only ones that compensate the hospital for indigent care. Grady will soon begin diverting those people with non-medical emergencies to facilities closer to where they live, Correll said.
“It’s a situation we don’t see getting better any time soon,” Correll said. “We’re trying our best to look for whatever we can do to fulfill our mission, but at the same time we have got to maintain our financial viability. We’ve got a wave coming at us and the health care system is simply not funded to take care of this. We need people to get back to work. It all starts with a job.”