Arkansas continues to have one of the nation's highest poverty rates and lowest median household incomes, as high gas prices and housing worries still trouble the country, new U.S. Census Bureau data shows.

 Arkansas continues to have one of the nation's highest poverty rates and lowest median household incomes, as high gas prices and housing worries still trouble the country, new U.S. Census Bureau data shows.
Data from the American Community Survey, released Tuesday, shows 17.9 percent of Arkansans subsist on earnings beneath the federal poverty line in 2007. Workers in Arkansas brought home a median income of $38,134 during the year.
Academics and policy advocates say the low wages hurt single parents and especially children, as data shows one in every four children in Arkansas live in homes earning under the poverty level. However, the statistics do not reflect this year's troubles in the mortgage market and gasoline prices still about 80 cents a gallon higher than a year ago.
"The reality of these numbers are worse than what they're showing us," said Kevin Fitzpatrick, a sociology professor at the University of Arkansas. "There are more people looking into shelters and showing up in soup kitchens and trying to access services this year in 2008 than ... last year."
A growing demand for services for the poor is indicated in the number of people using food stamps in Arkansas, which grew from 357,077 in July 2004 to 380,254 this July. Overall, the dollar amount for food stamps obtained rose from $29 million to $36 million in that four-year span.
Nationwide, the census survey shows the U.S. poverty rate at 13 percent last year, with the median home bringing in $50,740 annually.
Though health insurance remains a concern during this year's presidential election, the census data show the number of people in the U.S. lacking health insurance dropped by more than 1 million in 2007, the first annual decline since the Bush administration took office. The data show Arkansas' uninsured rate at 17.5 percent over a three-year span, compared to the national rate of 15.4 percent.
Rich Huddleston, executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, said children remain hard-hit by a lack of health insurance. Huddleston said one in 10 children in Arkansas still lack health-care coverage, despite the state's ARKids First program, which provides insurance for children in families earning up to twice the federal poverty level.
Part of the problem stems from families simply not applying for the benefits, Huddleston said, but others without insurance aren't eligible for the program.
"We think most of the (uninsured) kids who are not currently eligible for ARKids First lie in that 200 to 300 percent of poverty range," he said. "For families with those incomes, it's increasingly difficult just to pay bills on a daily basis."
Huddleston said his group would push legislators next year to increase eligibility of ARKids First to families making three times the federal poverty level. That would mean a family of four earning up to $63,600 would be eligible for the program.
Expanding the program likely would cost $8.8 million a year, Huddleston said. He said much of that money would go toward encouraging families to sign up for the program.
Gov. Mike Beebe supported the ARKids First program as a state senator when it initially passed in 1997. Grant Tennille, a spokesman for Beebe, said the governor's office has discussed expanding the program, but it will hinge on the health of the state's budget next year.
"In general terms, the governor supports an expansion of ARKids eligibility, but there's still a number of critical issues that need to be addressed," Tennille said. "We've got to know first where we stand money-wise before we say it's possible."