A Lot of Data to Celebrate But More to Do

Blog Post
Oct. 3, 2016

Every September, the Census Bureau releases their annual report on income, poverty and health insurance coverage. This year’s report, which was released in September, revealed upward progress in all three of these key areas, including a drop in poverty from 14.8 percent of Americans in 2014 to 13.5 percent in 2015. This was the biggest decline in poverty that the U.S. has seen since 1968. However, that same report contains startling data about children in America; 14.5 million live in poverty and the majority are children of color.

While campaigning for Hillary Clinton last month, President Obama thanked himself after touting the accomplishments discussed in the report. “This is a big deal: More Americans are working. More have health insurance. Incomes are rising. Poverty is falling. And gas is $2 a gallon,” said Obama.  Robert Greenstein, founder and President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said that this report is the best annual income and poverty report he's seen in decades.

The details of the report reveal that after years of no significant gains, the median household income in 2015 was $56,500, up 5.2 percent from the previous year.  According to the Census Bureau, this is the fastest annual growth on record. Notably, lower-income households saw the largest income gains in percentage terms.   

As mentioned above, the poverty rate in the United States fell by 1.2 percentage points, the sharpest one-year decline in almost 50 years. According to the report, there were 43.1 million Americans living in poverty in 2015, 3.5 million fewer than in 2014. The poverty rate among children was 19.7 percent, down from 21.1 percent in 2014. Poverty rates for African-Americans and Hispanics also went down. As explained in an article in the Atlantic, this progress is “in part due to job and income gains and (at least based on the supplemental measure) non-cash assistance from things such as housing vouchers or food stamps.”

During the same time period, the number of Americans with health insurance rose. In 2015, the percentage of people without health insurance coverage was 9.1 percent, down from 10.4 percent in 2014.  In fact, the reported uninsured rate was the lowest on record, largely because of expanded access through the Affordable Care Act.  

The report also found that the pay gap between men and women shrank to the lowest level on record. However, the increase is not statistically significant ― the average woman working a full-time, year-round job in 2015 made just 80 percent of what a man did, a slight improvement from last year’s 79 percent.

While the new data are good news, it is important to also note that disparities in economic security remain substantial. For example, median incomes remain 1.6 percent lower than in 2007 and lower still than the income peak that occurred in 1999. “The poor and the median full-time worker and household were better off at the end of Bill Clinton’s Administration than they are today,” Sheldon Danziger, president of the Russell Sage Foundation, said in a statement.

Also, the fact that 43.1 million Americans are living in poverty today is still a shockingly high number.  Especially troubling is that America’s children and young adults have the highest poverty rates, with 14.5 million children living in poverty in 2015.  Within that group, children and young adults of color are far more likely to be poor than white children. The data shows that in 2015, one-third of black children and 28.9 percent of Hispanic children lived in poverty, compared to 12.1 percent of non-Hispanic white children. For these children, the odds continue to be stacked against their success.  As I have mentioned in other posts, this high percentage of children living in poverty is especially concerning, given that growing up in poverty is one of the greatest threats to healthy child development.

An important takeaway of the report is to recognize the successes certain national programs have had in cutting poverty and helping large numbers of Americans. Notably, the report shows that in 2015, refundable tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC) lifted 4.8 million children out of poverty. The SNAP food assistance reduced overall poverty by 1.4 percentage points and raised 4.6 million people out of poverty. We must acknowledge the critical difference that public policy can make and build upon these current successes.

Certainly, the report shows the positive developments that American families have made as the recovery continues to strengthen. However, one good year does not make up for years of stagnation and many working families still have a long way to go before reaching prosperity. Hopefully, this report will keep the momentum moving forward as we fight to address issues such closing the significant inequality gap, and the earnings gap between the sexes.