SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico has backpedaled since 2000 on a problem that's long plagued the state — poverty.
More New Mexicans lived in poverty last year than in 2000, according to a report released Thursday by the Census Bureau. Only Mississippi had a poverty rate higher than New Mexico in 2012.
An economist with a social advocacy group mostly attributes the rise in poverty to the state's economic slide since 2008.
"We've had a terrible recession," said Gerry Bradley, research director for New Mexico Voices for Children. "With a construction-led recession, we were really hammered. It was awful."
A fifth of the state's population, about 426,000 people or 20.8 percent, had incomes below the agency's poverty thresholds last year. That's an increase of 106,000 residents since 2000, when the poverty rate was 18 percent.
A single parent with two children would be living in poverty if they had income of less than about $18,500 last year, according to the thresholds used by the Census Bureau. Under the agency's measurements, income includes wages, jobless benefits, Social Security, pensions, child support and public assistance but not capital gains or noncash benefits such as food stamps.
New Mexico wasn't alone in experiencing higher poverty. The percentage of people in poverty has grown in 43 other states since 2000 and the nation as a whole. The national poverty rate was 15.9 percent last year.
Bradley said the latest Census Bureau figures appeared to indicate "the bleeding has stopped" in New Mexico because the poverty rate in 2012 was not statistically different from 2011.
"We seem to be entering an era where the worst effects of the recession are starting to be behind us," he said, noting that New Mexico has started to show year-over-year growth in jobs.
A separate report by the federal agency showed that New Mexico's uninsured rate has dropped because the growth in health care coverage through public programs, such as Medicaid, more than offset declines in private insurance.
The latest reports used data from the agency's American Community Survey, which samples about 3 million households nationally. The Census Bureau said the figures are better for state-level comparisons than poverty and uninsured rate estimates released earlier this week in a separate report that's based on a much smaller household sample.
About 21 percent of New Mexico's population under age 65 lacked health insurance last year, down from 23.6 percent in 2008 and 22.4 percent in 2010.
Some of those uninsured residents will qualify for health care under an expanded Medicaid program starting in January. Others will be able to buy insurance from private insurers through the state's health insurance exchange, which begins enrollment next month. Individuals and small businesses can shop for insurance through the exchange's online center, by phone and locations across the state.
Bradley speculates that New Mexico's poverty rate will start to decrease in coming years as the economy recovers, in part because of the creation of health care industry jobs to serve the growing number of people with medical coverage through Medicaid and the insurance exchange.
"I think we're getting the wind back in our sails," said Bradley.
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