The Center's work on 'Trends' Issues


5 Takeaways From Last Week’s Figures on Poverty, Inequality, and Health Coverage

September 25, 2014 at 12:32 pm

Here are five key findings from our analyses (here and here) and blog posts on the new figures from the Census Bureau and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

  1. While poverty and median income improved last year for families with children,poverty rates reached record highs for childless families and individuals.  The poverty rate for individuals not living in families (people living alone or only with non-relatives) rose to 23.3 percent in 2013, the highest in over 30 years.  The poverty rate for childless families (childless couples, older couples or other families whose children have moved away or turned 18, and other relatives who live together), while much lower at 6.2 percent, was also the highest in over three decades.
  1. Income inequality remained historically high.  The share of the nation’s income going to the bottom fifth of households remained at 3.2 percent, tied for the lowest level on record with data back to 1967.  The ratio of the median income of the top fifth of households to that of the bottom fifth topped 12 to 1 for the first time on record, with data back to 1967.
  1. Austerity policies limited progress on jobs, income, and poverty.  Instead of responding to continued weak job growth by creating jobs (such as by expanding infrastructure investments), policymakers adopted various austerity policies that constrained consumer spending and employment growth.  Sequestration budget cuts, for example, lowered appropriations for most discretionary programs by 5 to 8 percent in 2013.  Policymakers also allowed a payroll tax holiday to expire after December 2012 and allowed tax cuts for very high-income individuals to expire (though the latter mattered less for consumer demand since high-income people’s spending is less sensitive to tax changes).  The Congressional Budget Office projected in early 2013 that these measures would reduce economic growth over the year by about 1½ percentage points and lower employment by more than 1 million jobs.
  1. The uninsured rate fell slightly last year and is falling further in 2014, as health reform’s major coverage expansions take effect.  The share of Americans without health coverage fell from 14.8 percent to 14.5 percent in 2013, according to Census’ American Community Survey.  And preliminary data from CDC — the first government survey data that reflect the early impact of the coverage expansions (the Medicaid expansion and subsidized marketplace coverage) — show that the number of uninsured fell by 3.8 million in the first quarter of 2014.
  1. The coverage gap between states that have expanded Medicaid and states that haven’t is widening.  In 2013,before the expansion took effect, some 14.1 percent of the people in the 27 expansion states (including Washington, D.C.) were uninsured, compared to 17.3 percent in the 24 non-expansion states.  Figures for the first part of 2014 show the gap is widening.  For example, CDC data show that 15.7 percent of non-elderly adults in expansion states were uninsured in the first quarter of 2014, compared to 21.5 percent for non-expansion states (see graph).

Last Year’s Drop in Poverty Only the Second Since 2000

September 22, 2014 at 4:43 pm

The decline in the official poverty rate last year from 15.0 percent to 14.5 percent is especially welcome because it follows a decade and a half of mostly rising or stagnant poverty rates, our detailed look at the new Census figures explains.  Before 2013, the official poverty rate fell only once since 2000 (see chart).  Still, at the current rate of progress — which was hampered in 2013 by slow job growth and austerity policies — poverty won’t return to its pre-recession level of 12.5 percent until about 2017.

Some 45.3 million Americans were poor in 2013, the Census figures show.

As in other recent economic recoveries, relief from poverty has been slow to arrive.  Last year was the fourth full year of the current recovery (which began in June 2009) but the first year in which poverty fell.

In the previous business cycle, poverty didn’t decline until the fifth full year of recovery, 2006.  In the recovery before that, poverty didn’t decline significantly until the third year, 1994.  By contrast, in the recoveries in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, poverty started falling within two years of the recession’s end.

Two reasons why poverty didn’t fall more in 2013 were the lack of faster job growth and austerity policies that dampened the labor market’s recovery.

In 2013, the economy produced barely enough jobs to outpace population growth.   Only 67.4 percent of the working-age population (people aged 16 to 64) was employed that year, just slightly higher than in 2012 (67.1 percent), according to previously released Labor Department figures.

In response to low employment, policymakers could have created jobs, such as by expanding infrastructure investments or reinstituting the temporary Recovery Act funding that states used in 2009 and 2010 to place 260,000 low-income parents and youth into jobs.  Instead, they adopted austerity policies that constrained consumer spending and job growth, including sequestration budget cuts that cut most discretionary programs by 5 to 8 percent in 2013.  They also allowed a payroll tax holiday to expire after December 2012; for most workers, the expiration lowered take-home pay by 2 percent of earnings.  A third policy decision, to allow tax cuts for very-high-income individuals to expire at the end of 2012, mattered less for consumer demand, as their level of consumer spending is less sensitive to tax changes.

The Congressional Budget Office projected in early 2013 that, together, these measures would reduce economic growth over the year by about 1½ percentage points and lower employment by more than 1 million jobs.  Goldman Sachs similarly estimated that changes in government spending and taxes in 2013 cost the economy 1.1 percent of gross domestic product.

Child Poverty Remains High, But States Can Make a Difference

September 19, 2014 at 12:55 pm

Update, September 22:  We’ve corrected the map in this post. 

More than half of the states plus the District of Columbia had child poverty rates of 20 percent or higher last year (see map), new data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey show, and in some states — like New Mexico and Mississippi — poverty affected as many as one in three kids.  Such extensive child poverty unnecessarily damages the prospects of millions of children.

Relative to their better-off peers, poor children have poorer health, do less well in school, and complete fewer years of education.  Over the long term, they are more likely to have chronic bad health and to work fewer hours and earn less as adults, which can contribute to a vicious cycle of poverty.

In addition, the stress of hunger, unsafe neighborhoods, and unstable housing, among other hardships that many poor families face, can have harmful physiological effects on children’s still-developing brains.  This “toxic stress” can impede their social and emotional development and ability to learn.

States have a range of effective tools to reduce child poverty and the associated hardships. They can, for instance:

  • Raise the state minimum wage in conjunction with creating or improving the state’s earned income tax credit.
  • Provide quality early childhood education to help boost the future prospects of children in poor families while allowing their parents to work and build a better future for them.
  • Connect more poor children to a full range of federal supports, including nutrition, housing, and health care.

Why More Inequality Means Less State Revenue — And How States Can Respond

September 19, 2014 at 11:06 am

Growing income inequality in recent decades has slowed state tax collections, a new report from Standard & Poor’s finds, making it harder to fund public services ― like education ― that lay the groundwork for a strong future and help push back against rising inequality. States need to adapt their tax codes to take growing inequality into account.

Virtually all states collect more taxes (as a share of family income) from low- and moderate-income families than from high-income families.  So it makes sense that collections would slow when, as we’ve documented, the lion’s share of income growth goes to the richest families.

  • Many states have a flat-rate or nearly flat-rate income tax.  A flat income tax raises less revenue from economic growth — especially when most of the gains go to people at the top of the income scale — than a graduated income tax, which taxes higher incomes at higher rates.
  • Growth in sales tax collections weakens when low- and middle-income families’ incomes stagnate or grow more slowly, since they spend (rather than save) a larger share of their income than wealthy families do.
  • States’ antiquated sales tax rules favor high-income consumers.  Those at the top tend to spend more on services, like lawn care or health club memberships, which remain exempt from sales tax in many states.  They also spend a larger share of their income online — purchases that often are effectively tax-free.

States can respond to slowing tax collections by making their income tax more progressive through a more graduated rate structure.  This would make tax collections more responsive to economic growth, bringing faster revenue growth when the economy expands.  Tax collections would also fall more when the economy slows, but states can address this with stronger reserve funds, better mechanisms to manage surpluses, and other policy tools, as we have explained.

States also can broaden their sales tax base to include more services, including those used by high-income families, and extend the sales tax to Internet sales.

Over time, these changes would give states more resources to push back against rising inequality by investing in education and training, providing supports like child care assistance for low-wage workers, and adopting or expanding state earned income tax credits.

Conversely, if states fail to adapt their tax systems to this growing problem, they will have an even harder time stemming the harmful rise in inequality.

Poverty Above Pre-Recession Levels in 47 States, New Census Data Show

September 18, 2014 at 4:46 pm

Poverty remained above pre-recession levels last year in 47 states plus the District of Columbia, our analysis of Census data issued this morning shows (see chart).  In some states, the increase was substantial — in Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, and Nevada, poverty rates were four to five percentage points higher in 2013 than in 2007.  The stubbornness of high poverty rates in the wake of the Great Recession underscores the need for states to do more to help working families make ends meet.

Poverty rates in the states not still above pre-recession levels, Alaska and the Dakotas, weren’t statistically different from 2007.

Unequal wage growth and rising income inequality have played key roles in preventing more substantial improvements in poverty.  For workers earning low pay, wages are right where they were 40 years ago after adjusting for inflation, according to the Economic Policy Institute.  And since the recession’s official end in 2009, most workers’ wages have fallen, while workers at the top have seen some growth.

States have tools to help to address low wages and rising income inequality.  They can create or improve state earned income tax credits (EITCs), which promote work and reduce poverty and can improve low-income children’s chances of success both in school and, later, in the workforce.  States can also raise their minimum wage — the federal minimum wage is 22 percent below its peak value in 1968, after adjusting for inflation — and index it to inflation.  Improvements in these two areas are complementary for reasons we explain here, reaching a broader population than the EITC or minimum wage alone and keeping many more families out of poverty.