There was a great deal of positive discussion, reporting and metaphorical back-slapping in September when the U.S. Census Bureau released new numbers showing that the “official” poverty rate dropped 1.2 percentage points over last year.
The poverty rate, the bureau said, was 13.5 percent for 2015. That meant that 3.5 million people once listed as among the nation’s impoverished were no longer part of that group.
“That represents … the largest annual percentage drop since 1999,” the bureau press release announced.
Hark and hosannah. It is cause for celebration because it DOES represent a decrease in poverty.
Not to rain on anyone’s statistical parade, but consider what the report leaves unsaid. That drop in the poverty rate means that 43 million people in the United States remain in poverty. Forty-three million people — many of them children.
You can bet they’re not celebrating the news.
According to a report by National Public Radio and other news outlets, “poverty dropped for whites, blacks and Hispanics, as well as for seniors.”
NPR’s Pam Fessler also noted that the number of people with health insurance rose last year by 1.3 percent, meaning that more than 90 percent of Americans are now covered by some form of health insurance, thanks in large measure to the Affordable Care Act.
The census bureau report also noted that, after years of stagnation, “real median household incomes rose from $53,718 in 2014 to $56,516, the first statistically significant increase since 2007.” Yet NPR’s Fessler noted that the “median household income was still lower than it was in 2007.” (By the way, median household income represents the amount of money earned in a year by every member of a household above the age of 15.)
Here’s something else: While the new numbers are positive and reflect what the New York Times called significant signs of progress and a recovering economy, there were many Americans who didn’t share in the good news.
The Times’ Nate Cohn reported that rural Americans didn’t experience the same economic growth as the rest of the country. He said the median income for people living outside of metropolitan areas dropped two percent to $44,657.
All the numbers and definitions aside, the point to be made is simple: There are still a great many U.S. citizens, some of them our friends and neighbors, who are living in poverty. Or dangerously close to it.
The National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health has collected depressing numbers on its own. Their 2016 report says “nearly half of the children in the United States live dangerously close to the poverty line.”
The center’s director, Renee’ Wilson-Simmons put the cautionary numbers in perspective: “The fact is, despite the significant gains we’ve made in expanding nutrition and health insurance programs to reach children most in need, millions of children are living in families still struggling to make ends meet in our low growth, low wage economy.”
Remember that when it comes time to donate to charities, such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Remember the organizations who aid those who continue to need our help. As Sheila Gilbert, president of the society’s National Council said, the new poverty numbers are “wonderful news, but now is not a time for us to rest on our laurels. We have a moral duty to assist our brothers and sisters struggling to live in dignity.”
So when we think about those new, positive numbers, let’s think of them as simply a good start.
Record Editor Emeritus