Newly released figures show a significant rise in the number of Americans who are living in poverty and going without health insurance. The Census Bureau says 2.6 million Americans were plunged into poverty last year, bringing the poverty rate to an eleven-year high of 13.2 percent. It was the first major increase to the poverty rate since 2004. Median household income also fell 3.6 percent — the largest such decline on record. Meanwhile, the number of people without health insurance rose from 45.7 million to 46.3 million, the eighth straight year the ranks of the uninsured have grown. On Thursday, President Obama said the figures underscore the need for healthcare reform.
President Obama: "Now, one part of the problem is the uninsured. And this morning the Census Bureau released new data showing not only that the poverty rate increased last year at the highest rate since the early 1990s, but also that the number of uninsured rose in 2008. And we know from more up-to-date surveys that since the recession intensified last September, the situation has grown worse. Over the last twelve months, it’s estimated that the ranks of the uninsured have swelled by nearly six million people. That’s 17,000 men and women every single day."
Obama was speaking before the American Nurses Association in Washington. His comments came as Democratic leaders vowed to approve healthcare legislation before the end of the year. Speaking on NBC’s Today Show, Vice President Joe Biden promised a bill before Thanksgiving.
Vice President Joe Biden: "We will have a bill. I believe we will have a bill. I was in the Congress a long, long time, been there for eight presidents. I think we’ll have a bill before Thanksgiving."
Share prices in the nation’s top insurance companies have grown since President Obama’s nationally televised speech on healthcare reform. During the address, Obama criticized insurers but also said he wants to keep them in business. Obama also refused to insist on a government-funded public option and backed a proposal that would force Americans to carry health insurance, giving insurers millions of potential new customers. On Thursday, shares in major insurance companies, including UnitedHealth, WellPoint and CIGNA, rose between one to four percent. The investment research firm Sanford Bernstein says it’s now "even more confident after the Obama speech that the legislative outcomes will be moderate with no threat of a Medicare-like public plan."
A leading advocacy group for single-payer healthcare meanwhile is criticizing Obama’s proposal requiring Americans to purchase health insurance. Physicians for a National Health Program says the latest census figures show the mandate approach has failed in Massachusetts, where it became law in 2006. At least 352,000 Massachusetts residents, or 5.5 percent, were uninsured last year. The group’s co-founder, Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, said, "Today’s numbers show that plans that require people to buy private insurance don’t work. Obama’s plan to replicate Massachusetts’ reform nationally risks failure on a massive scale."
The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved President Obama’s $128 billion request to fund the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan for the coming fiscal year. The vote comes as top Democratic lawmakers have voiced new skepticism about a potential troop increase in Afghanistan. In an interview with the New York Times, Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin said he opposes a troop increase until the US improves the training of Afghan forces. Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested she would oppose sending more US troops to Afghanistan.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: "September 24th is fraught with meaning for us. This is the date, according to the supplemental, that the metrics as to what’s going in Afghanistan are to be reported to Congress. I’m more interested in that report. I hope that we will be briefed on the McChrystal [assessment] when the President receives it. Perhaps next week we will see that. I don’t think there’s a great deal of support for sending more troops to Afghanistan, in the country or in the Congress."
Meanwhile in Afghanistan, a UN commission has disqualified ballots from eighty-three polling stations in last month’s national elections. Official results show Afghan President Hamid Karzai ahead with 54 percent, but his supporters have been accused of widespread fraud.The UN says it’s also ordered recounts at hundreds of other polling stations.
Iran has unveiled a new proposal that precludes talks on its uranium enrichment program but calls for a global control system to eliminate nuclear weapons. The Iranian proposal also offers help in stabilizing Afghanistan, fighting terrorism and developing energy projects. On Thursday, State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley said the proposal fails to meet US concerns but will still be considered.
State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley: "It is not really responsive to our greatest concern, which is obviously Iran’s nuclear program…Iran has failed to meet its obligations, has failed to cooperate sufficiently with the IAEA. So we remain open to direct dialogue with Iran. If we can get to that point, we would expect to engage on the full range of issues, including our concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions."
The US has cut more aid to Honduras in protest of the coup overthrowing Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. The government-run Millennium Challenge Corporation is withholding $11 million in aid and another $4 million in funding for road construction in Honduras. The move comes one week after the State Department cut off around $30 million in aid to the Honduran coup regime.
Controversy is brewing over the appointment of a top Bush administration official to a White House advisory panel on declassification. Michael Hayden, the former director of the National Security Agency and later the Central Intelligence Agency, has been tapped to join the Public Interest Declassification Board. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appointed Hayden during the August recess. Hayden oversaw the Bush administration’s warrantless spy program and aggressively backed CIA practices including secret prisons and extraordinary rendition. He has recently opposed the release of government memos authorizing the use of torture, saying their disclosure would harm national security.
President Obama says he’s accepted an apology from Republican Congress member Joe Wilson for interrupting his healthcare speech on Wednesday. Wilson yelled out "you lie" when Obama said his health plan wouldn’t cover undocumented immigrants.
President Obama: "I’m a big believer that we all make mistakes. He apologized quickly and without equivocation, and I’m appreciative of that. I do think that, as I said last night, we have to get to the point where we can have a conversation about big important issues that matter to the American people without vitriol, without name-calling, without the assumption of the worst in other people’s motives."
Wilson’s Democratic opponent, Rob Miller, has raised more than $405,000 in online donations since Wednesday night.
In other news from Washington, Democratic Senator Tom Harkin has become the new chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Harkin replaces the late Senator Edward Kennedy, who died last month.
The National Endowment of the Arts has demoted a top appointee following criticism from the right-wing Fox News Host Glenn Beck. Beck recently attacked the NEA’s now former Communications Director, Yosi Sergant, for taking part in a conference call that discussed an Obama administration public service initiative. Beck says Sergant was trying to enlist artists to promote the administration’s policies. The NEA denies the call had any political agenda, but says Sergant has been reassigned to a different position. Sergant is the second Obama appointee criticized by Beck to be ousted in the last week. The administration’s special adviser for environmental jobs, Van Jones, stepped down over the weekend, following attacks from Beck and other right-wing pundits.
Meanwhile, in Chicago the former chief executive of a window factory that gained notoriety for a worker sit-in has been arrested and held on $10 million bond. Richard Gillman is accused of conspiring to launder funds from Chicago’s Republic Windows and Doors factory and secretly removing its equipment. The alleged offenses came around the time Gillman abruptly ordered the factory’s closure to sell it to another company. Instead, workers occupied the plant to win back their severance and vacation pay. The factory has remained open under new management.