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Al Jazeera's Rob Reynolds reports from El Centro, a town in California where nearly a third of residents are looking for work

The US poverty rate has risen to its highest level in 15 years, while the overall number of Americans living in poverty hit its highest mark since the 1960s, the US government said in a report.

Released on Thursday by the US Census Bureau, the report on the economic well-being of US households covered 2009, the first year in office by Barack Obama, the US president and followed a recession that left millions of people jobless last year.

The report showed that one in seven Americans lived in poverty last year, while the overall poverty rate climbed to 14.3 per cent, or 43.6 million people, from 13.2 per cent, or 39.8 million people, in 2008.

The figures showed that the poverty rate in 2009 was the highest since 1994, but was 8.1 percentage points lower than the poverty rate in 1959, the first year for which poverty estimates are available, the Census Bureau said.

Obama called 2009 a tough year for working families but said it could have been worse.

"Because of the Recovery Act and many other programs providing tax relief and income support to a majority of working families - and especially those most in need - millions of Americans were kept out of poverty last year," Obama said in a statement.

Sensitive time

The US government defines poverty as a family of four living on less than $22,000 a year.

While poverty levels rose, the share of Americans without health coverage also rose from 15.4 per cent to 16.7 per cent - or 50.7 million people - mostly because of the loss of employer-provided health insurance during the recession.

Congress passed a health overhaul this year to address the rising numbers of uninsured people, but its main provisions will not take effect until 2014.

The new figures come at a politically sensitive time, just weeks before the November 2 congressional elections.

Voters fretting about high unemployment and the slow pace of economic improvement will decide whether to keep Democrats in power in the House and Senate or turn to Republicans.

The 14.3 per cent overall poverty rate, which covers all ages, was the highest since 1994. It was lower than predicted by many demographers who were bracing for a record gain based on last year's skyrocketing unemployment.

Many had predicted a range of 14.7 per cent to 15 per cent.

Analysts said the blow of lost incomes was cushioned in part by increases in Social Security payments in 2009.

They also cited federal expansions of unemployment insurance, which rose substantially in 2009 under the economic stimulus program.

With the additional unemployment benefits, workers were eligible for extensions that gave them up to 99 weeks of payments after a layoff.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies