WASHINGTON (AP) — The poverty rate in the United States has dropped for the first time since 2006, bringing a bit of encouraging news about the nation's economy as President Barack Obama and Congress gear up for midterm elections.
The U.S. Census Bureau, in its annual look at poverty in the United States, said that the poverty rate in 2013 was 14.5 percent, down from 15 percent in 2012. The decrease in the poverty rate was attributed to the growth in year-round employment by 2.8 million jobs in the United States, government officials said.
White House officials cheered the positive information in the census release.
"There is reason to believe that this progress has continued into 2014, as the labor market has strengthened and millions have gained health insurance coverage," said Jason Furman and Betsey Stevenson, members of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. "At the same time, the data also offer a clear illustration of the large amount of work that remains to strengthen the middle class in the wake of the worst recession since the Great Depression."
The median household income for families was $65,587 in 2013, and $31,178 nonfamily households, which also was not statistically different from the 2012 levels. However, census officials said that income is 8 percent less than it was in 2007, the year before the United States entered the recession.
Officials also say that the number of children under 18 in poverty declined from the previous year for the first time since 2000.
The number of children in poverty dropped from 21.8 percent in 2012 to 19.9 percent in 2013, and the number of children in poverty also declined from 16.1 million to 14.7 million.
The official poverty level is based on a government calculation that includes only income before tax deductions. It excludes capital gains or accumulated wealth, such as home ownership. As a result, the rate takes into account the effects of some government benefits, such as unemployment compensation. It does not factor in noncash government aid such as tax credits and food stamps.
Officials also said the percentage of people without health insurance coverage for the entire 2013 calendar year was 13.4 percent, which equaled 42 million people. Census officials said those numbers cannot be compared with previous year numbers because they changed the way they asked the question on their surveys.
Because the main coverage expansion under the Affordable Care Act didn't take effect until 2014, the latest census numbers offer a baseline number of uninsured by which increased coverage and effectiveness of the law will be measured.
PITTSBURGH (AP) — The final report from a landmark federal study on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, found no evidence that chemicals or brine water from the gas drilling process moved upward to contaminate drinking water at a site in western Pennsylvania.
The Department of Energy report, released Monday, was the first time an energy company allowed independent monitoring of a drilling site during the fracking process and for 18 months afterward. After those months of monitoring, researchers found that the chemical-laced fluids used to free gas stayed about 5,000 feet below drinking water supplies.
Scientists used tracer fluids, seismic monitoring, and other tests to look for problems, and created the most detailed public report to date about how fracking affects adjacent rock structures.
The fracking process uses millions of gallons of high-pressure water mixed with sand and chemicals to break apart rocks rich in oil and gas. That has led to a national boom in production, but also concerns about possible groundwater contamination.
But the DOE report is far from the last word on the subject. The Energy Department monitored six wells at one site, but oil or gas drilling at other locations around the nation could show different results because of variations in geology or drilling practices. Environmentalists and regulators have also documented numerous cases where surface spills of chemicals or wastewater damaged drinking water supplies.
The DOE study also ran into problems with the man-made markers meant to track possible long-term pollution. DOE said it was able to track the markers for two months after fracking, but then that method had to be abandoned when it stopped working properly.
A separate study published this week by different researchers examined drilling sites in Pennsylvania and Texas using other methods. It found that faulty well construction can cause pollution, but not fracking itself.
Avner Vengosh, a Duke University scientist involved with that study, just published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said in an email that it appears the Energy Department report on the Pennsylvania site is consistent with their findings.
The Energy Department report did yield some surprises. It found that the fractures created to free oil or gas can extend up to 1,900 feet from the base of the well. That's much farther than the usual estimates of a few hundred feet. The Energy Department researchers believe that the long fractures may have followed existing fault lines in the Marcellus Shale or other formations above it.
WASHINGTON (AP) — The agency responsible for safety on the nation's roads was years late in detecting a deadly problem with General Motors cars and lacks the expertise to oversee increasingly complex vehicles, congressional Republicans charged in a report Tuesday.
The report by a House committee's GOP majority raised serious questions about the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's ability to keep the public safe, and came as the Senate convened a hearing on the safety agency's shortcomings.
Safety regulators should have discovered GM's faulty ignition switches seven years before the company recalled 2.6 million cars to fix the deadly problem, the report concluded.
It also said the agency didn't understand how air bags worked, lacked accountability and failed to share information internally.
"As vehicle functions and safety systems become increasingly complex and interconnected, NHTSA needs to keep pace with these rapid advancements in technology," the report said. "As evidenced by the GM recall, this may be a greater challenge than even NHTSA understands."
At least 19 people died in crashes caused by the faulty switches in GM small cars like the Chevrolet Cobalt. The company acknowledged knowing about the problem for at least a decade, but it didn't recall the cars until February. The delays left the problem on the roads, causing numerous crashes that resulted in deaths and injuries. Lawmakers have said they expect the death toll to rise to near 100.
NHTSA already has fined GM the maximum $35 million for failing to report information on the switches, but the committee found that many of the bureaucratic snafus that plagued GM also are present at NHTSA.
"While NHTSA now complains about GM's switch, it seems NHTSA was asleep at the switch too," Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., said in a statement.
NHTSA blamed GM for the delays and said many problems cited by the committee were fixed in a 2011 review. GM, the agency said, hid information by fixing switches without changing the part numbers, causing the number of complaints about the switches to decline and skewing data.
The agency said it has a strong record of pursuing defects, influencing almost 1,300 recalls covering 95 million vehicles and parts in the last decade. NHTSA also said it's using sophisticated tools to search for defects and it has an improved complaint-tracking process. It's also discussing with Congress the need for more investigators.
At the Senate hearing Tuesday, David Friedman, acting administrator of the NHTSA, took exception to an assertion by Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., that GM's failure to share key information with NHTSA was due to incompetence rather than intent. "It wasn't simply incompetence on their part," Friedman said. "They were actively trying to hide the ball. NHTSA was working to find the ball."
Heller and Senate Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri called on the White House to name a permanent chief of NHTSA, saying it will be hard for an interim chief to lead reforms.
A key criticism in the House report was that NHTSA defect investigators didn't understand until earlier this year after GM began recalling cars that an ignition switch defect that could cause the vehicle's power to shut off or move to the "accessory" position while the car was moving could also prevent the airbag's from deploying.
"It is tragic that the evidence was staring NHTSA in the face and the agency didn't identify the warnings," Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said in a statement. "NHTSA exists not just to process what the company finds, but to dig deeper. They failed."
NHTSA received consumer complaints about the GM switches for years, but didn't order a recall investigation. Besides disabling the airbags, the faulty switches could also shut down key systems such as power steering and power brakes, causing crashes.
The House committee said that a Wisconsin state trooper sent a report to NHTSA in 2007 about a crash that killed two teenage girls. The air bags failed to inflate, and the trooper traced the problem to the ignition switches. The agency also commissioned two outside investigations that reached the same conclusion in that crash and another one, yet no one at NHTSA connected the information.
NHTSA rejected a proposal to start an investigation, relying on a general consumer complaint trend that showed the GM cars didn't stand out from comparable vehicles in number of complaints or reported defects, the report said.
Other findings by the House committee majority:
—An updated 2007 report on the Wisconsin crash for NHTSA by Indiana University included a reference to a GM service bulletin to dealers telling them that the switches could unexpectedly shut off engines. Yet NHTSA investigators told the committee they didn't know about the bulletin until after the recall.
—NHTSA investigators didn't understand how advanced air bags worked, and instead based their assessment of GM's problems on outdated knowledge. "It was not until after GM announced a recall of these vehicles in February 2014 that NHTSA understood the connection between the ignition switch position and air bag deployment," the report said.
—Budget constraints have limited NHTSA's training. The lead air bag investigator assigned to the GM case didn't remember any paid training courses in the past six to eight years.