Census: U.S. Poverty Rate Persists

Terry H. Schwadron

Sept. 15, 2018

Statistically speaking, poverty in the country remained at about the same level as in 2016, a new report by the Census Bureau tracking income and poverty reported this week.

Overall, however, middle-class income was seen as slightly higher, a trend reflected in most headlines.

That’s not very surprising for a government that has paid much more attention to the wealthiest citizens, but it is useful to know that the issue of poverty is persistent and not considered growing. Still, the report suggests that poor people are not winning, in President Trump’s words, if not losing ground. Rising costs for health care are an important factor.

According to its definitions, about 12.3% of the population or about 40 million were poor in 2017, less than half a percentage point from the previous year.

At the same time, the figures collected show that income for men grew a bit more than income for women. In all, the amount of increase in household income lags the increase in inflation over the same period.

According to these numbers, the number of people without health insurance stayed about the same between 2016 and 2017, though it is clear that the effects Trump administration policy to break up the reach of the Affordable Care Act lag in this accounting. Since 2017, the administration has been active in cutting supports for existing health care, which added uncertainty to health care markets and has contributed to yet higher prices.

Since 2017, it is estimated that about three million more people have lost access to health insurance.

Basically, the new figures, which are self-reported, suggest that the booming economy is adding jobs slowly but unevenly, and that more jobs may not be a panacea for substantially changing a persistent percentage of poor people in the United States. Indeed, more jobs at the lowest wages just means more people unable to fully pay their bills from a single work paycheck.

President Trump has been quick in saying and repeating that his approach to tax cuts has been effective at lowering the overall unemployment rate, with best-ever unemployment rates for women or blacks. But what he doesn’t address is whether the bottom end of wage earners actually are gaining in prosperity.

Indeed, the Trump administration is raising the cost of subsidized housing, cutting programs like food stamps, and pushing more financial responsibility for Medicaid to the states, which, in turn are trying to trim programs to pay for new responsibilities.

Perhaps these figures are too early to get a substantial statistical look, but, at a glance, 2017 did not change much for the nation’s poor from 2016.

Median household income was $61,400 in 2017, an increase in real terms of 1.8% 2016, but a third consecutive annual increase. Income for men increased 3%, with a slight uptick in the overall number of people working, while income for women remained unchanged.

“In 2017, you see that median household income went up by 1.8%, whereas median earnings of full-time, year-round workers declined by 1.1% for both men and women,” said Gloria Guzman, a Census Bureau statistician.

Over the same time, “8.8%of the U.S. population, or about 28.5 million people, lacked health insurance for the entirety of 2017,” no statistical chance from 2016, said Edward Berchick, a demographer for the bureau.

The “data show a marked slowdown in the pace of improvement relative to the previous two years. While any reduction in poverty or increase in income is a step in right direction, most families have just barely made up the ground lost over the past decade,” said Elise Gould, Economic Policy Initiative Senior Economist. “In 2015 and 2016, income growth was stronger and broad-based, with growth for low- and middle-income households tracking overall growth. In 2017, however, well-worn patterns of inequality reemerged, with stronger growth at the top than for typical households.”

That also “likely contributed to stalled progress in closing the nation’s still-large and persistent racial income gaps,” said EPI Economist and Director of the Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy Valerie Wilson. “In 2015 and 2016, income growth was stronger for black and Hispanic households than for white household, but that trend has not continued.”

“Today’s release shows that while in 2017, growth in Hispanic median household income continued to outpace that of white non-Hispanics, resulting in a slight narrowing of the Hispanic-white income gap, income growth stalled for median black households, reversing recent progress in closing the black-white income gap,” Wilson added.

Along with crumbling infrastructure and lack of a coherent health care approach, the unstated truth about poverty in America is that so long as it is unaddressed as a priority, the problem will persist.





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