Researchers find sharp decline in poverty in U.S. despite census report

Violet Powell
September 15, 2017

Americans saw their median household income increase to $59,039 in 2016, the highest on record, up 3.2 percent from the previous year.

The census determines poverty based on income and family size.

The report underscores that in the final two years of the Obama administration, low- and middle-income Americans made noticeable progress after struggling in the early years of the economic recovery.

The strong job market drove the income increase, experts said.

Median earning of full-time, year-round workers, 15 years and older, 1960 to 2016. The "median" means half the population earns more, half earns less. But Census officials cautioned against comparing the figures because the bureau has changed its methodology over the years.

The median, inflation-adjusted income of $59,000 a year ago surpassed the level in 1999 as the highest on record, but Census officials discouraged that comparison because the method for measuring income changed in 2014.

Still, a wide swath of Americans have benefited from the strengthening economy.

The typical New Hampshire household earned $35,000 a year more than the typical household in the country's poorest state, Mississippi, where the median income is $41,099.

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The post-1973 reality of flat income is a huge contrast to the rapid growth from 1960 up to the 1973 oil shock and the reopened inflow of immigrant labor after 1965. Asians, who have the highest median income of $81,500, did not see a statistically significant change in income.

→ In 2016, the poverty rate and the number in poverty decreased in the Northeast from 12.4 percent (6.9 million) in 2015 to 10.8 percent (6.0 million) and in the South from 15.3 percent (18.3 million) in 2015 to 14.1 percent (17.0 million). The median income had surged since 2014 because millions more Americans found full-time jobs, but there is little evidence that employers are rushing to offer raises to those who already are employed. MA was the state with the lowest percentage of uninsured people, at 2.5 percent and the highest was in Texas, where 16.6 of the population was uninsured.

In fact, metro areas with high shares of Hispanic residents also tend to claim some of the highest shares of poverty. Hispanics saw their poverty rate fall to 19.4%, down from 21.4%.

The percentage of Americans without health insurance fell three tenths of a percent to 8.8 percent. And of course, with the future of the Affordable Care Act still up in the air, there's lots of uncertainty about where those numbers will be in the future.

That's only the "official" poverty rate, though, which only takes into account before-tax income.

The bureau says the number of insured hit an all-time high in 2016, reaching 91.2 percent.

Another sign of economic growth is that poverty declined countywide from 10.3 percent in 2015 to 8.8 percent last year, which is lower than it was in the years leading up to the recession.

The chart only shows income, but not the quality of goods in the stores, such as Starbucks coffee, cheap products imported from China, high-tech music players, improved autos or better health-care. The rest had Medicare, Medicaid or military coverage.

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