UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE KEEPS MILLIONS OUT OF POVERTY…. A new report from the Census Bureau points to a painful, ugly 2009 for those struggling to get by. The poverty rate jumped to 14.3% last year, its highest level in 16 years. As CNN noted, there were 43.6 million Americans in need — “the highest number in 51 years of record-keeping.”

If you’re thinking it seems obscene that the biggest fight in Washington right now is over whether to give the rich yet another round of tax breaks, on the heels of a 14.3% poverty rate, then you and I are on the same page.

But as heartbreaking as the Census data is, it’s worth remembering that government spending prevented it from being even worse. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Arloc Sherman reports today that an analysis of the new survey data “shows that unemployment insurance benefits — which expanded substantially last year in response to the increased need — kept 3.3 million people out of poverty in 2009.”

Sherman added, “In other words, there were 43.6 million Americans whose families were below the poverty line in 2009, according to the official poverty statistics, which count jobless benefits as part of families’ income. But if you don’t count jobless benefits, 46.9 million Americans were poor.”

And this is just UI. It’s hard to calculate, but imagine what the poverty rate would have been without the Recovery Act, too.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying the Census numbers should be seen as “not that bad.” I believe the opposite — it’s a national tragedy. I also believe, however, that it’s worth emphasizing that government intervention — with spending that Republicans found offensive — prevented an awful situation from being even more drastic.

Indeed, in a political context, let’s also remember that, as far as many Republicans are concerned, unemployment insurance benefits shouldn’t even exist. Nevada’s Sharron Angle believes the benefits “spoil” the jobless; Alaska’s Joe Miller believes unemployment benefits are unconstitutional; Kentucky’s Rand Paul thinks it’s time to cut the jobless off before we’re worse than Europe; and a wide variety of Republican lawmakers have said the aid to the unemployed is encouraging laziness.

These same Republicans will be outraged if tax rates for millionaires expire on schedule. The GOP has its priorities.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.