Progress Illinois breaks down new Census Bureau figures, which showed "superb" income growth and significant drops in the poverty and uninsured rates.
The official U.S. poverty rate fell last year to 13.5 percent -- representing the largest annual percentage-point drop in poverty since 1999 -- and annual median income for family households increased for the first time since 2007, according to new data released Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Between 2014 and 2015, the percentage of people without health insurance also decreased by 1.3 points.
Many experts reacted positively to the new Census figures, including Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
"The three key indicators of well-being in today's Census data all moved decisively in the right direction in 2015 -- the first time that has occurred in nearly two decades," Greenstein said in a statement.
"The welcome progress of 2015 reflects both reasonably 'tight' labor markets and improved government policies," he added. "As the economy neared full employment, average real earnings rose. In addition, state and local minimum wage increases gave many low-income workers a further income boost. And health reform reversed the once-stubborn trend of shrinking health insurance coverage, fueling coverage expansions. Even so, standards of living still haven't fully rebounded to where they were before the Great Recession caused income to fall and poverty to rise substantially."
Uninsured Rate Declines
Twenty-nine million Americans, or 9.1 percent of the population, were uninsured last year. That's down from 33 million people, or 10.4 percent of the population, in 2014 -- when many provisions of the Affordable Care Act took effect.
The percentage of uninsured children also ticked down from 6.2 percent to 5.3 percent between 2014 and 2015.
Overall, 90.9 percent of Americans were insured at some point during the 2015 calendar year, up from 89.6 percent in 2014.
Although fewer people are currently uninsured than in 2014, Dr. Robert Zarr, president of the Physicians for a National Health Program, which advocates for a nationwide single-payer health care system, said it is "totally unacceptable" that 29 million Americans, including 3.7 million children, lack health insurance coverage.
"That tens of millions of people will remain uninsured under our current arrangements is perhaps the most compelling argument for why our nation needs to swiftly adopt a single-payer system, where everyone, without exception, would be covered and get first-dollar coverage for all medically necessary care," he said in a statement. "But it's by no means the only argument ... Too many people have skimpy policies that deter them from seeking care when they should get treatment, and that leave them unprotected against financial hardship when illness or injury strikes. And their number is growing."
Poverty Ticks Down
There were 43.1 million Americans living in poverty last year, which translates into an official poverty rate of 13.5 percent, down 1.2 percentage points from 2014. That decrease represents the biggest annual percentage-point decline in poverty since 1999, according to the Census Bureau.
The poverty rate is now 1 percentage point higher than the 2007 level, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Broken down by race, the official 2015 poverty rate was 9.1 percent for non-Hispanic whites, 11.4 percent for Asians, 21.4 percent for Hispanics and 24.1 percent for blacks.
The poverty rate among children was 19.7 percent, down from 21.1 percent in 2014. In all, 14.5 million children were living in poverty last year.
"It's exciting to see a decisive shift or improvement in health insurance, poverty and income, and that's precisely what we saw today. At the same time, the number of people experiencing poverty is still staggeringly high -- 43 million," said Sam Tuttle, director of policy and advocacy at the Heartland Alliance. "The direction is really exciting, but I think it also signals how much work we still have left to do."
A more comprehensive assessment of poverty using the supplemental poverty measure (SPM) was also released on Tuesday. The supplemental poverty rate was 14.3 percent, down from 15.3 percent in 2014. Using the SPM, 45.7 million people were classified as poor in 2015.
The poverty picture would have been bleaker without the social safety net, the data show.
Social Security benefits lifted 26.6 million people out of poverty last year, under the SPM measure. Additionally, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, as well as the Earned Income Tax Credit plus the Child Tax Credit kept 4.6 million and 9.2 million people out of poverty in 2015, respectively.
"Unfortunately, particularly at the state level but across the board, there's been kind of an effort to eat away at some of these programs, and we think that (the government programs have) actually been part of the reason why you see people moving out of poverty," Tuttle explained.
On Thursday, the Census Bureau will release state-specific figures on poverty as well as household income and health insurance coverage.
The Illinois-based figures may reflect the potential impact of the yearlong state budget impasse on the local poverty rate.
"Here in Illinois, while we're the fifth largest economy, we haven't been leading the race in terms of improving the lives of people experiencing poverty," Tuttle said. "In fact, we've seen a general erosion in the programs that really help people connect to work or support youth and make sure that seniors and others feel safe and remain in their homes."
"All of these things work together," she continued. "I think if we see the same trends in Illinois as we saw nationally on Thursday, it will be exciting to see that reduction [in poverty]. But I think acknowledging that we're still at staggering levels of poverty really tells us what the state budget crisis is gonna mean for really hundreds of thousands if not over a million people who are struggling to make ends meet."
Household Income Gets A Boost
Last year, meanwhile, real median incomes for family and non-family households got their first annual boost since 2007 and 2009, respectively.
Real median incomes increased in 2015 by 5.3 percent for family households to $72,165 and 5.4 percent for non-family households to $33,805.
However, real median household income in 2015 was still "1.6 percent lower than in 2007, the year before the most recent recession, and 2.4 percent lower than the median household income peak that occurred in 1999," according to the Census Bureau.
Men and women also experienced their first significant annual increase in median earnings since 2006. Between 2014 and 2015, real median earnings ticked up 1.5 percent for men to $51,212 and 2.7 percent for women to $40,742.
Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, said it "was really great to see the income growth the economy logged in 2015."
"We're digging ourselves out of a pretty deep hole," he added, "and if we have one more year of decent income and wage growth, we think most household income groups will pretty much have recouped all the ground they lost in the Great Recession, you know, in 2008, 2009, 2010 income losses."
Mishel called the 2015 income gains "superb," though he noted the "absence of inflation is a real kicker here." Had there been regular inflation in 2015, Mishel said household income growth would have increased less, by about 3 percent.
When it comes to the gender wage gap, women now earn 80 cents for every dollar paid to men -- a penny more than in 2014.
"While a small step forward is better than standing still, over a 40-year career women still stand to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars to the wage gap," Emily Martin, vice president for workplace justice at the National Women's Law Center, said in a statement. "And for many women of color, the cost of the lifetime wage gap will still exceed a million dollars. We can't afford to close this gap one penny at a time."
According to EPI, the gender wage gap shrunk by 5.8 percentage points from 2000 to 2015.
"Unfortunately, the little improvement that has occurred since 2000 was due mostly to men's wages stagnating, rather than both genders seeing wage growth with women's wages growing even faster," reads an EPI blog post on the new Census figures.
The statistics released Tuesday came from the following reports: Income and Poverty in the United States: 2015, Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2015 and The Supplemental Poverty Measure: 2015.