Census Bureau Poverty Numbers Are Cold Comfort for Women, Families, Workers

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Census Bureau Poverty Numbers Are Cold Comfort for Women, Families, Workers

Emily Crockett

A new report from the Census Bureau found a modest reduction in poverty, but there's a long way to go to help struggling low- and middle-income families.

America’s poverty rate and gender pay gap have improved, but just barely, while median household income is at a standstill.

A new report from the Census Bureau on income and poverty found that the overall poverty rate in the United States decreased slightly, from 15 percent in 2012 down to 14.5 percent in 2013. The pay gap between women and men also technically improved, from 77 cents on the dollar to 78 cents—but that wasn’t a statistically significant change.

And with incomes still stagnating, experts say there’s still a long way to go to help struggling low- and middle-income families.

“The data reflect a grim reality for millions of women and their families, despite a welcome decline in the overall poverty rate,” Joan Entmacher, vice president for family economic security at the National Women’s Law Center, said in a statement.

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Nearly 18 million adult women and 15 million children are living in poverty, and the poverty rates for both women and men overall were unchanged from 2012 to 2013. Median household incomes overall also stayed the same, as they have since 2011. 

Child poverty dropped by nearly 2 percent, the first time since 2000 that child poverty has significantly decreased year to year. But those gains only went to children in married households or with a single father, not to children of single mothers. Black children were also the only racial and ethnic group whose poverty level did not decrease.

“Things are looking a bit better overall, but there are certainly groups who are not seeing improvement,” Kate Gallagher Robbins, senior policy analyst for family economic security at the National Women’s Law Center, told Rewire.

The wage gap may partially explain the child poverty statistics for children of single mothers. “The wage gap is still as pernicious as ever,” Gallagher Robbins said.

The change from 2012 to 2013 wasn’t statistically significant, and the wage gap has hardly budged for the last decade. That’s mostly because wages have stagnated for both women and men during that time. But for the portion of the wage gap that may be explained by discrimination, women will get little help as long as Republicans in Congress continue to block legislation like the Paycheck Fairness Act.

Moreover, Gallagher Robbins said, comparing 2013 to 2012 confuses the bigger picture of how far the country has fallen in the past 14 years. The poverty level in 2000, before the first recession in that decade, was just 11.3 percent compared to today’s 14.5 percent.

The year the Great Recession started, 2007, was worse than 2000 but still better than today, with a poverty level of 12.5 percent.

Wages have a long way to go before they even recover to 2007 levels, much less 2000. Median wages overall have fallen 8 percent since 2007, and wages for African-Americans have fallen almost 14 percent.

There was some good news for Latinos, whose median wages got a 3.5 percent bump from 2012 to 2013. But their wages are still almost 9 percent lower than they were in 2007.

Valerie Wilson, director of the Economic Policy Institute’s program on race, ethnicity and the economy, told Rewire that the modest income gains for Hispanic and Black populations this year are to be expected at this stage in the recovery, since historically disadvantaged groups are usually the last to recover from an economic shock.

This has major policy implications, she said. For instance, if the Federal Reserve thought the economy had recovered enough to raise interest rates, that would stifle job growth for those at the bottom just as they were starting to recover.

And keep in mind, she said: “Every group is still well below its pre-recession income levels.”

Poverty levels aren’t a force of nature, experts say, and we can influence them with public policy. For instance, restoring cuts to unemployment insurance could have resulted in even less poverty in 2013. And it’s likely because certain areas of the country raised their minimum wage that the bottom 10 percent of incomes were the only ones that didn’t fall between the first half of 2013 and the first half of 2014.