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Equal Voice

Poverty Declines – but Numbers Remain in Question for U.S.

September 11, 2019

Brad Wong
By Brad Wong
Communications Manager

As U.S. families continue to build movements for equity and to alleviate poverty, what numbers should be used by policymakers and those concerned? The official number of Americans in poverty declined in 2018, but some estimates say the amount is higher.

More than 1.4 million Americans are no longer living in poverty. The country’s poverty rate for 2018 dropped to 11.8 percent, the lowest since 2001, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Sept. 10.

Last year, 38.1 million Americans lived in poverty, by official standards, down from 39.5 million people in 2017. The poverty rate for that year was 12.3 percent.

While the official 2018 poverty data revealed progress in many areas, analysts and anti-poverty advocates attributed many of the gains in the overall numbers released by the census bureau on Sept. 10 to the economic recovery that started a decade ago and the long-standing federal government safety net.

“Anti-poverty programs are lifting millions of economically vulnerable persons, including seniors and children, out of poverty,” according to an analysis by Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and an economist who served in the Obama administration.

The White House Council of Economic Advisers said the improvements in federal poverty data were the result of current policies.

Census officials used the data to point out several areas of progress, including higher pay for women and a record-low poverty rate of 26.8 percent for households led by a woman.

“In 2018, workers in female-householder families worked full-time, year-round at a greater rate, with employment changes concentrated among blacks and Hispanics,” census bureau officials said in a statement.

But tens of millions of Americans remain poor by official standards, a fact that anti-poverty and grassroots advocates nationwide are working to counter through community organizing, movement building and improved policies. A recent study shows that six in 10 Americans don’t have $1,000 in savings, so a financial emergency could lead to debt, instability or poverty.

The Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C. relied on revised criteria for poverty to estimate in 2018 that the actual number of poor Americans could be as high as 140 million people. That translates to a poverty rate as high as 43 percent.

Official poverty data for 2018 indicate there’s cause for concern despite the reported upturn. The median household income was – $63,179, statistically the same as 2017.

Setting a national poverty target and putting in the hard work to achieve it will have incredible dividends.
Mark Shriver, senior vice president, at Save the Children

“Household income growth significantly slowed again in 2018, following a marked deceleration in 2017,” said Elise Gould, senior economist for the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute, in a statement.

“While any reduction in poverty or increase in income is a step in the right direction, most families have just barely made up the ground lost over the past decade,” Gould added.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities expressed alarm at the higher number of Americans without health insurance in 2018, calling it “a turn for the worse.”

The research organization in the nation’s capital cited census data that 27.5 million people did not have health insurance in 2018, a nearly 8 percent increase from 2017.

The question of whether the official federal poverty measure is the most accurate or up-to-date to set policies remains open. The official poverty definition is based on criteria from the 1960s – and has not changed significantly over the decades. For 2018, the poverty threshold for a household of four people ranged from $25,465 to $26,324.

Census officials also issued their revised poverty benchmark, the Supplemental Poverty Measure which takes into account safety net programs, housing costs and geographic locations. It showed that the U.S. was home to 42.5 million poor people in 2018, not the 38.1 million counted officially.

Using this measure, the poverty rate for 2018 was 13 percent.

There are concerns, too, that federal government officials want to cut the country’s social safety net.

As in past years, Whites made up the largest group among the country’s 38.1 million poor people – 15.7 million people or more than 40 percent of those in poverty.

But three communities of color combined – Asians, Blacks and Hispanics – constitute more than half of all poor people in the U.S. These three communities, which have diversity among them, saw a total of 21.4 million people in poverty.

Among the four groups there were disproportional rates: The number of poor Whites made up 8 percent of all White Americans. Twenty one percent of all Blacks in the country were poor. Poor Asians were 10 percent of that overall racial group. Poor Hispanics accounted for 17.6 percent of all Hispanics in the U.S.

Though the number of children in poverty dropped by 1 percent from 12.8 million in 2017 to 11.9 million last year, advocates for youth called for more policy and societal progress.

“Every child deserves a future, and this new data shows that for 12 million children in America, they’re still missing out,” Mark Shriver, senior vice president for U.S. Programs & Advocacy at Save the Children, said in a statement.

“Setting a national poverty target and putting in the hard work to achieve it will have incredible dividends for the future of children – the future we all share.”


Brad Wong is communications manager at Marguerite Casey Foundation. He has written about Father’s Day, the Earned Income Tax Creditvoting rights in Florida and rural organizing in North Carolina. This story has been updated since it was posted. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted content specifically created for Equal Voice can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.

Poverty Declines – but Numbers Remain in Question for U.S.