New Census Data Affirms the Role of Government Programs in Eradicating Poverty

Arguably the most notable statistic is that, for the first time since the Census Bureau started collecting the data in 1988, income, poverty, and health coverage measures all improved for the second year in a row. The poverty rate declined to 12.7 percent, the largest two-year decline since 1969. Since 2014, the number of people in poverty has dropped by more than 6 million. Looking at income, the average household income rose by about $1,000. These poverty statistics remain racially differentiated, as people of color are twice as likely to be poor as whites. However, poverty rates amongst African Americans and Latinos have dropped as well.

But what do these numbers mean? On their own, these statistics don’t tell us all that much. But the Census Bureau’s Supplementary Poverty Measure (SPM) helps fill in the picture.

The SPM accounts for the impact of federal programs on reducing the poverty rate and determines the number of people who would have been in poverty if not for various federal assistance programs. According to the SPM, federal programs pulled over 40 million people out of poverty. By this measure, the most effective programs were social security, refundable tax credits, and SNAP (formerly food stamps). In short, the numbers prove that these programs work. 

In the realm of health care, the data similarly affirmed the success of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in expanding health care coverage. The insured rate across the United States continued to rise. Further, states that chose to expand Medicaid saw better results than those that did not, with an uninsured rate of 6.5 percent in expansion states as compared to 11.7 percent in non-expansion states.

Census data also illuminated the gender pay gap. Women who work full-time, year-round jobs made 80 cents for every dollar a man did, a one-cent increase from last year. The president of the National Partnership for Women & Families called this “modest yet meaningful” progress. Women of color still suffer a larger pay gap, as the number drops to 63 cents for black women and 54 cents for Latina women. These persistent discrepancies demonstrate the continued importance of policies aimed at identifying and eliminating pay discrimination.

Overall, these data appear very hopeful. And in many ways, they are. But only if we continue funding and executing the programs responsible for these vital gains. Proposals from President Trump and the House Budget Committee threaten every single one of the programs and policies cited above. Budgets that drastically cut SNAP and tax credits, unyielding attempts to repeal the ACA, and moves to defund the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s pay data collection—these measures, combined with the looming tax reform bill that will likely seek large cuts to taxes for the wealthy at the expense of programs for low-income Americans, could devastate this progress.

Jewish tradition commands us to “Speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy” (Proverbs 31:0). To fulfill this imperative, we must speak up for the policies we know can help us realize a world of compassion, justice, and wholeness for all.

Susannah Cohen is a 2017-2018 WRJ Eisendrath Legislative Assistant, working on Economic Justice and Women's Issues. She is from New Rochelle, New York, and graduated from Columbia University. 

This Blog originally appeared in The RAC's blog.

Published: 9/28/2017

Categories: Our Social Justice