The Census Bureau has just reported that 13.5% of people in the U.S. — about 43.1 million — were officially poor last year. One wouldn’t pop a champagne cork over numbers like these. But they’re lower than reported for 2014, when the rate was 14.8%, representing roughly 46.7 million very poor people.
Rates declined for every major population group the report breaks out, except working-age adults with disabilities, whose rate remained 28.5%. All reported groups, except Asians also had lower deep poverty rates, i.e., household incomes less than half the thresholds the Bureau uses to separate the poor from the non-poor.
On the flip side, we still see large disparities. And the somewhat improved rates don’t necessarily reflect meaningful income gains.
Children Still the Poorest, Seniors Still the Least
The child poverty rate has exceeded the overall poverty rate since at least 2006, when I started tracking. Last year it dipped to 19.7%, just 1.4% lower than in 2014. The new rate represents about 14.5 million children — more than a third of all the poor people in our country.
About 6.5 million children — 8.9% — lived in deep poverty. This too is somewhat fewer than in 2014, but still alarming, especially given what we know about the lifelong damages that even just plain poverty can wreak on young children.
As in the past, people 65 years and older had the lowest poverty and deep poverty rates among the major age groups — 8.8% and 2.8% respectively. We can chalk this up largely to Social Security retirement benefits, as the Census Bureau’s new report on its Supplemental Poverty Measure shows.
Race/Ethnicity Gaps Still Yawning
Nothing much new here, except the rates. For example, the poverty rate for blacks was still more than two and a half times the rate for non-Hispanic whites — 24.1%, as compared to 9.1%.
The deep poverty rates nearly mirror these gaps — 10.9% for blacks and 4.3% for non-Hispanic whites.
Hispanics fared better than blacks, but hardly well. Their poverty rate was 21.4% and their deep poverty rate 8.5%.
Rates for Asians were lower — 11.4% and 6.2% respectively. But several analyses suggest we’d see some larger gaps — and in other cases, virtually none or even reversed — if the Bureau differentiated among the subpopulations this group comprises.
Low Inflation a Factor in Poverty Rate Drops
We should take always take poverty rates like these with a large grain of salt because the thresholds are so very low. One dollar over the threshold and everyone living in the household (except for some children) is officially not-poor.*
The thresholds aren’t altogether fixed, however. The Bureau adjusts them annually, based on the CPI-U — what consumers in metro areas spend on a market basket of goods and services.
The CPI-U remained virtually flat in 2015. So even a miniscule increase in household income could boost all its members over the applicable threshold.
In other words, the new, lower poverty rates don’t necessarily signal substantial, widespread income gains. They do, however, mean that more workers got paid somewhat more — and more who wanted to work got jobs that paid more than a pittance.
* Children under 15 who aren’t related by birth, marriage or adoption to any of the adults in the household are not part of the “poverty universe,” so far as the official measure is concerned.