A 0.5% drop in the official poverty rate is not a cause for celebration
Sep 10, 2019
Today the U.S. Census Bureau released its findings for the 2018 Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage and Supplemental Poverty Measure. The first report tells us about poverty in America without the assistance of anti-poverty programs. The second report tells us how effective those programs are at moving citizens above the poverty rate listed in the first report.
We learned that in 2018:
The official poverty rate was 11.8%, down 0.5% from 2017
A family with two adults and two children earning $25,465 was below the poverty line
38.1 million people were below the poverty line, a decrease of 1.4 million people
The only group to see decline in poverty rates was non-Hispanic whites
40% of households in America are living on below $37,000 a year
27.3 million Americans would be below the poverty line if not for Social Security
7.9 million Americans would be below the poverty line if not for refundable tax credits
3.1 million American would be below the poverty line if not for SNAP
Medical expenses moved 8 million Americans below the poverty line
The first takeaway from today should be that the official poverty level is preposterously low. In Massachusetts alone, families need to earn roughly three times the poverty rate just to get by. Although 1.4 million people were moved above the official poverty line, those people are by no means economically secure or mobile. 40% of all households are living on less than $37,000 a year. Who can support a family of four on less than $37,000 a year, never mind $25,000? What kind of life is that?
We know from our families it’s a life of worry and stress. We know that it’s a life of juggling multiple jobs and borrowing from Peter to pay Paul until the month ends. How can a head of household plan or train for the future if half the day is spent worrying about how to make rent? Before anyone could be expected to manage debt and start saving, let alone take time off work to go back to school, they need the mental bandwidth to start the long process of achieving economic mobility.
First, we need to help families cope with the stress of poverty, then we can focus on moving families not just above an arbitrary poverty line, but toward family-sustaining wages.
The critical importance of anti-poverty programs has never been more urgent. Programs like Social Security and SNAP don’t move people out of poverty; they provide a modicum of stability that is a pre-requisite to any hope of economic mobility. In 2018, some families had access to these programs, but not nearly enough.
The stress of making ends meet comes at a cost to our health. As health insurance coverage declines and the economy drifts toward recession, any progress made by families becomes vulnerable. Factoring in the absence of paid family medical leave or sick days and exorbitantly high medical expenses, setbacks for families even with housing and employment can occur.
The second takeaway from today should be to remember that exits from poverty are possible. People say it can’t be done. EMPath knows that it can be done—but it requires an understanding of what it’s like to live in poverty. Moving families out of poverty requires deeper investments and smarter ways of working. When whole families are supported for long periods of time and given the chance to develop skills and set goals, they do extraordinary things.
Members of EMPath’s senior leadership can be made available for comments or questions.