A homeless man begs for money in the Financial District in San Francisco, California
The share of people living in poverty in the United States changed little in 2011 after three years of hefty increases, according to government data released on Wednesday.
Overall, the 2011 poverty rate was 15 percent, representing about 46.2 million Americans, down slightly from 15.1 percent in 2010, data showed.
But median household income declined by 1.5 percent to $50,054 in 2011 from $50,831 in 2010, reports Reuters.
A measure of household income inequality, the Gini index, increased 1.6 percent, recording its first annual increase since 1993, the U.S. Census Bureau said.
The bureau's poverty level threshold is about $23,000 for a household of four. The rate of poverty has been rising since just before the year 2000, accelerating with the economic stagnation of the past three years. It was 13.2 percent in 2008 and 14.3 percent in 2009.
The report comes amid a close presidential race in which disparities between the rich, the poor and the middle class have become an overarching theme, along with the overall state of the nation's economy.
Looming across-the-board budget cuts, as part of a larger effort to rein in the federal budget deficit, could shrink safety net programs, such as food stamps and welfare.
While many experts welcomed the report's finding that overall poverty has not worsened, they lamented the fact that the rate is still high.
"Despite the fact that the poverty rate did not change from 2010 to 2011, it is still higher than it has been in all but two years since the mid-1960s," said Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institute, a think tank in Washington. "It's not time to celebrate. We can celebrate when the economy improves and more people can find work."
Despite the reduction in income, programs such as unemployment benefits appeared to cushion the blow and keep more people above the poverty threshold, according to Census Bureau experts.
David Johnson, head of social, economic and housing statistics at the bureau, pointed to a large shift from part-time to full-time employment as well as help from programs such as unemployment benefits.
"It think all those things going together ... is what's keeping this lower," he told reporters.
Additionally, the number of Americans without health insurance declined to 15 percent in 2011 from 16.3 percent in 2010.
Among people aged 18 to 25 - a group that saw expanded access to coverage under President Barack Obama's healthcare law - 25.4 percent were uninsured, compared with 27.3 percent in 2010.