When discussing health insurance we frequently hear that there are “46 million uninsured” in America.  This figure is from a monthly survey of about 50,000 households done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau.  This Current Population Survey (CPS) then uses statistical techniques to paint a picture of the entire U.S. population.

Advocates for expanding taxpayer-subsidized health insurance, and their allies in the press, repeat this 46 million number constantly.  It paints the following technically accurate but misleading picture:

insured v uninsured

This looks really bad.  At least there are more than 250 million people with health insurance – that is clearly a good thing that we never hear it in the press.  Still, there’s a lot of red there.  It means that in 2007 (15%) of Americans lacked health insurance, according to the CPS.  Advocates, some elected officials, and the press round that number up to “1 in 6 Americans”.  We hear that there are “46 million uninsured,” and then we jump to the conclusion that government needs to help 46 million people buy health insurance, subsidized by taxpayers.

Let’s look inside that 45.7 million number and see what we can learn.  Here is our key graph:

uninsured subpopulations

First, I need to make a technical disclaimer.  I had this same detailed breakdown for 2005 data, done by health experts when I was part of the Bush Administration.  I now have a 2007 total (45.7 million), and so I have proportionately adjusted the components to match that new total.  It is a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but I am confident that it is solid, and it does not move any component by more than two hundred thousand.  In addition, the expert analysis I am using ensures that the subdivisions shown above do not overlap.  I will slightly oversimplify that point in the following description of the breakdown to make the explanation readable.

Let us walk through the graph from top to bottom.

  • There were 45.7 million uninsured people in the U.S. in 2007.
  • Of that amount, 6.4 million are the Medicaid undercount.  These are people who are on one of two government health insurance programs, Medicaid or S-CHIP, but mistakenly (intentionally or not) tell the Census taker that they are uninsured.  There is disagreement about the size of the Medicaid undercount.  This figure is based on a 2005 analysis from the Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Another 4.3 million are eligible for free or heavily subsidized government health insurance (again, either Medcaid or SCHIP), but have not yet signed up.  While these people are not pre-enrolled in a health insurance program and are therefore counted as uninsured, if they were to go to an emergency room (or a free clinic), they would be automatically enrolled in that program by the provider after receiving medical care.  There’s an interesting philosophical question that I will skip about whether they are, in fact, uninsured, if technically they are protected from risk.
  • Another 9.3 million are non-citizens.  I cannot break that down into documented vs. undocumented citizens.
  • Another 10.1 million do not fit into any of the above categories, and they have incomes more than 3X the poverty level.  For a single person that means their income exceeded $30,600 in 2007, when the median income for a single male was $33,200 and for a female, $21,000.  For a family of four, if your income was more than 3X the poverty level in 2007, you had $62,000 of income or more, and you were above the national median.
  • Of the remaining 15.6 million uninsured, 5 million are adults between ages 18 and 34 and without kids.
  • The remaining 10.6 million do not fit into any of the above categories, so they are:
    • U.S. citizens;
    • with income below 300% of poverty;
    • not on or eligible for a taxpayer-subsidized health insurance program;
    • and not a childless adult between age 18 and 34.