NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 15, 2009

The U.S. Census Bureau released new statistics on the number of uninsured Americans in its annual report on September 10, sparking discussion of what the statistics mean and some surprising information about the incomes of the uninsured, says Devon M. Herrick, a health economist and senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis.

For example:

  • The Census Bureau found an estimated 46.3 million Americans lacked health insurance in 2008, according to findings from the Current Population Survey (CPS).
  • The proportion of Americans who lack health insurance grew by one-tenth of a percentage point, to 15.4 percent in 2008, up from 15.3 percent in 2007.
  • According to the report, the uninsured rate has remained virtually unchanged for the past 15 years, hovering around 15 percent.

There is considerable disagreement about how the uninsured figures from the Census Bureau should be interpreted, says Herrick.

According to Thomas Miller, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.:

  • Although the CPS is intended to track only individuals who are uninsured for an entire year, people tend to report being uninsured for shorter durations.
  • The widely cited CPS statistic is considered closer to an estimate of those who were uninsured at the point in time surveyed, rather than the number of people uninsured for the entire year.

Michael Cannon, director of health policy studies at the Cato Institute, believes supporters of government-run health care misuse CPS figures for political purposes.

According to Cannon, the CPS measures only the number of uninsured on any given day, not over a long period, and many of the uninsured quickly regain coverage.

"The Current Population Survey, and its estimate of 46 million or so uninsured, has been the occasion of a massive fraud on the public," said Cannon.  He says the number of Americans who are uninsured for the entire year "is more like 20 to 30 million -- and many of those are already eligible for government programs or can afford to purchase health insurance."

Source: Devon M. Herrick, "Census Bureau Uninsured Numbers Raise Questions," Heartland Institute, October 2009;  Jacob A. Klerman et al., "Understanding the Current Population Survey's Insurance Estimates and the Medicaid 'Undercount,'" Health Affairs, September 10, 2009; and "Statement: Greenstein on Census' 2008 Health Insurance and Poverty Data," Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, September 10, 2009.

For Health Affairs text: 

For Center on Budget and Policy Priorities text: 


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