New U.S. Census Bureau figures on income, poverty and the uninsured paint a bleak picture locally and nationally, portending more bad news next year and setting the stage for this fall's political campaigns.
Although the U.S. poverty rate stayed the same and overall household incomes rose slightly between 2006 and 2007, economists said Tuesday that the numbers should have been better in what was thought to be the last year of an economic expansion.
In metropolitan Phoenix, the poverty rate actually increased, to 13 percent last year from 12.6 percent in 2006. And more children, both locally and nationally, fell below the poverty level last year than in 2006.
More than 50 percent of Valley families living in poverty are also working.
"This is the first time in history that you have people who are working 40 hours a week and having trouble feeding their families and putting a roof over their head," said Rachel Sulkes, executive director of Central Arizonans for a Sustainable Economy.
"The idea behind America is you work really hard and your work is rewarded," she said. "If you look at these numbers, that is increasingly less true."
While census figures show the income gap between the rich and the poor appeared to narrow slightly, the data on the high end doesn't include household incomes over $1 million or capital gains.
"This economic expansion was uniquely unrewarding for middle- and low-income households," said Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute. "These gains came too little too late in an economic recovery that yielded far too few gains for working families."
In a conference call, Bernstein said at the same time wages were stagnant for most American families - and declined over the seven-year economic recovery - worker productivity actually increased.
"The American work force is working harder and smarter baking the economic pie, yet the size of their slices is thinning," he said.
Apache County had the highest poverty rate in the nation among smaller counties, with 33.8 percent of its residents living below the poverty level - $21,027 for a family of four.
The number and percentage of Americans without health insurance declined from 2006 to 2007, but that's because more people qualified for publicly funded programs, such as KidsCare and Medicare.
At the same time, the percentage of people who were insured through their employers or through private insurance declined.
Economists predict that next year's figures will be worse, reflecting the economic slowdown that began in earnest late last year.
Using food stamps as an indicator, an average 255,600 Arizona families qualified for food stamps in the first six months of 2008, up 16.7 percent over the same period last year, according to the state Department of Economic Security.
That compares with a 4.6 percent increase from 2006 to 2007.
Longtime Arizona pollster Bruce Merrill said economic conditions for working families - those "bread and butter" issues - provide a distinct policy advantage for Democrats in the coming elections, if they're able to capitalize on it.
That's especially true in Arizona and the West, he said, where an influx of young, Hispanic residents tilt demographically Democratic. They typically have more children and lower incomes, and make up a growing percentage of the voting bloc.
"Americans are just having a much harder time maintaining the standard of living they had in the past," Merrill said. "The country is moving toward a mass democracy more reflective of poor people rather than rich people."