Recent poverty data spark reasons for hope, concern

By Renée Wilson-Simmons

A range of indignities has been heaped upon us recently, from natural disasters to calamities conceived and carried out by humankind. And so, the September release of 2016 data on poverty, income and health insurance by the U.S. Census Bureau contains some good news that’s worth spreading — with caveats.

The Good News

Poverty is at pre-recession levels, having declined from 13.5 percent in 2015 to 12.7 percent in 2016 — a reduction of 2.5 million people. That’s certainly good news. Household earnings have gone up; the median household income increased 3.2 percent to $59,000 — the highest ever recorded by the Census. The percentage of people without health insurance coverage for the entire calendar year declined slightly to 8.8 percent and 28.1 million. Again, all good news.

In addition, the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) also showed a reduction in poverty, from 14.5 percent to 13.9 percent. The SPM takes into account many of the government programs designed to assist low-income families and individuals that are not included in the current official poverty measure, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), housing subsidies and tax credits. SNAP prevented 3.6 million people from living in poverty in 2016. And, while children under age 18 continue to be the poorest residents of our nation — 18 percent are living in poverty — the child poverty rate calculated using the SPM fell by 1.1 percentage points from 2015, down to 15.1 percent. That is a statistically significant decline.

The Bad News

Despite those positive statistics, it is essential that we not lose sight of the fact that 40.6 million people remain in poverty, and the rates diverge drastically by race and ethnicity. Twenty-two percent of African Americans, 19.4 percent of Hispanics, 10.1 percent of Asians and 8.8 percent of whites are poor. However, it is also important to note that, because of their overall representation in the general population, whites are the single largest segment of those in poverty.

In terms of insurance coverage, among households with incomes at or below the poverty level — which are, of course, those least able to shoulder medical debt — 16.3 percent remain uncovered. That statistic stands in sharp contrast to the coverage rate for households above 400 percent of the poverty threshold — only 4.6 are uncovered.

Employment that enables people to earn a living wage — one that is sufficient to provide the necessities and comforts essential to an acceptable standard of living — seems beyond the reach of many. The nation’s 8 percent unemployment rate means that 12.5 million people are out of work. And in 2016, six states — Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri and South Carolina — passed legislation that decreased the maximum number of weeks that an individual can receive unemployment benefits.

Now add to this news a recent report from the Federal Reserve, which shows that those in the top 1 percent income bracket now control 38.6 percent of the nation’s wealth. Compare that statistic to the share of wealth possessed by the bottom 90 percent, which has been falling steadily for 25 years, from 33.2 percent in 1989 to 22.8 percent in 2016.

The Mixed News

While statistics are always essential to an understanding of who is poor, much more information is needed to understand the “why” of poverty, as well as what can be done to prevent and reduce it. Public Religion Research Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to conducting independent research at the intersection of religion, culture, and public policy, this week released a report titled Attitudes on Child and Family Wellbeing: National and Southeast/Southwest Perspectives.

The report presents the results of a spring survey of approximately 3,500 adults, including an oversampling of residents in the Southeast and Southwest. The survey found that white Americans’ support for policies to address poverty is limited in different ways by education level, such as by perceived social distance from racial minorities among non-college-educated whites and by lower commitments to equal opportunity among college-educated whites. The survey also found skepticism of the government’s ability to manage programs that solve social problems.

Still, the findings offer hopeful news on some fronts:

  • The vast majority — 86 percent — of survey respondents agree that children whose families cannot afford health insurance should receive coverage through the government.
  • Sixty-one percent believe that judges should always consider the impact on children and families when making sentencing and prison-assignment decisions for parents convicted of crime.
  • The majority of those surveyed — 66 percent — agree that pre-kindergarten programs should be supported by local taxpayers in the same way that local public schools are funded — as opposed to parents paying for them.

Hope for Our Nation’s Future

In an ideal world, poverty would be nonexistent. We do not live in an ideal world. In this era of polarized politics, continuing economic turmoil and growing indifference — if not outright animosity — toward the poor, we must change public sentiment before we can transform public policy. To achieve and sustain poverty reduction, those committed to social justice must do what they can to improve the nation’s understanding of who is poor and why; instill belief in the effectiveness of poverty-reduction policies; and engage a diverse range of people, organizations and agencies in efforts to support such policies. What people think — and why — can determine the success or failure of public policy initiatives. We all have an important role to play.


Renée Wilson-Simmons, DrPH, is director, National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, Department of Health Policy and Management. The National Center for Children in Poverty is a nonpartisan public policy research center that, since its founding in 1989, has been dedicated to promoting the economic security, healthy development and well-being of America’s low-income children and their families by conducting research and translating the findings into actionable recommendations that advocates and policymakers are using to improve lives and futures.