Jan's Corner: Making Sense of the Census Data in a High-Stakes Year

September 24, 2013

For a moment each year, family poverty takes center stage in America, before the media and most of the public turn their attention elsewhere. Last week, the Census Bureau released two reports detailing income, poverty and health insurance data for the nation as a whole as well as data for states and localities from the American Community Survey.

Each year, the data spark a familiar set of arguments. Opponents of our current system of public programs say the data show that these programs do little to boost family well-being. Advocates for the programs argue the data show the opposite: we need to invest more in policies and programs that are working, and that without these supports, families would be worse off.

2013 was no different but the stakes are higher this year than ever, as the Census reports come at a time when Congress is debating whether to make permanent sequester cuts to government programs and whether to cut programs like food stamps and job training.

Here’s a look at the take-aways for those concerned about children and youth.

The Data

If no news is good news, news of no change is… well both good and bad. On one hand, for the first time in five years, household income did not shrink, on average, and the percentage of people in poverty did not rise from 2011 to 2012. This may indicate, as Politico notes, that lingering effects of the recession that began in 2007 may be tapering off.  (That said, some cities like New York did see increases in poverty.)

The Pew Charitable Trust’s Stateline.org reports that median income ranged from a little over $37,000 in Mississippi to over $71,000 in Maryland. Missouri and Virginia were the only states that saw a statewide average decrease in household median income over last year.

Not so good: the number of Americans living in poverty also remained unchanged at a record 46.5 million.

And the bigger picture isn’t cheery, especially for younger workers. Taking a longer view, Washington Post blogger Neil Irwin says that the data on incomes for the last 25 years showsThis isn't a lost decade for economic gains for Americans. It is a lost generation.”

What the Data Means

It often feels like some politicians have concluded that poverty, like death and taxes, is something we can’t do anything about.

But have we really lost the war on poverty? In a commentary for Spotlight on Poverty, Bruce Meyer of the University of Chicago and James Sullivan of Notre Dame say don’t count us out yet. Using more comprehensive data, they find that economic well-being has indeed improved, in part as a result of rising Social Security benefits (primarily for older Americans), lower prices for consumer goods, an expanding economy and, for many poor families with children, targeted tax cuts and tax credits.

The biggest challenge may be ensuring that the post-recession recovery reaches low-income kids and families.

Deborah Weinstein, Director of the Coalition on Human Needs, reads the data this way: the recession may be over for stockholders and corporations, but ordinary families are still struggling to reach or stay in the middle class. Weinstein says that this is no time to cut back on programs that help these families feed their children, get medical help, or help with heating bills.



Jan Richter is a retired clinical social worker and child psychotherapist, and long-time children's advocate and writes the SparkAction Update. Read her bio here.



Jan Richter