Shyama Venkateswar Distinguished Lecturer, Hunter College and Director, Public Policy Program, Roosevelt House

Posted on September 9, 2014 · Posted in Frank Friday, Roosevelt House

Earlier this week, the U.S. Census Bureau released the country’s poverty and inequality numbers for 2013. Although the poverty rate showed a decline from 15 percent in 2012 to 14.5 percent in 2013, there was no statistically significant change in the number of poor people who approximate 45.3 million people, a matter still of deep concern.

A few highlights from this year’s report: Hopeful news regarding children in poverty. For the first time in over a decade, the number of children in poverty in the United States fell by 1.4 million to 14.7 million. As an ethnic group, Latinos fared the best. Their poverty rates dropped to 23.5% (12.7 million individuals) from 25.6 percent (13.6 million individuals) in the previous year. Latinos also saw a rise in their median income to $40, 963.

The country, however, is still deeply unequal. The Gini Index, the measure for household income inequality, rose significantly from 0.476 to 0.481, where a score of 0 indicates full equality while a score of 1 indicates perfect inequality. Fifteen states in the US saw inequality rise, including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and California. While median income in the United States was $51,940 – a level thaAmerica’s Inequality was almost 9 percent below its peak in 1999 – the top 5 percent in the country had incomes of $196,000 or more. In Manhattan, the average income of the top 5 percent of households rose to $864,394, a figure that was 88 times as much as the poorest 20 percent. In NYC as a whole, poverty rates remain firm at about 21 percent representing about 1.7 million New Yorkers struggling below the poverty line defined for a family of 4 with income less than $23,830 and for a single person, $11,890.

A recent report from the Center for Disease Control claimed that the Affordable Care Act had helped to bring down the number of Americans without health insurance. The rate of uninsured Americans was about 13.1 percent over the first quarter of 2014 compared to 13.4 percent overall in 2013, a reduction of approximately 4 million people.  In addition, the White House states that the CDC report did not capture the full positive change brought about by Obamacare as an additional 3.8 million people enrolled in a healthcare program after March 1, 2014 when the survey was completed.

The Census data has also showed that providing benefits to families whose lives are precarious do work. Without Social Security payments, the number of individuals over 65 living in poverty would have been an additional 15 million in 2013. Food stamps, a topic that has been the subject of acrimonious partisan debates, helped lift almost 4 million people above the established poverty line while earned-income tax credits have been found to reduce poverty levels by about 5.5 million people.

There are serious policy decisions that must be taken to address the stubborn poverty that affects millions of vulnerable Americans. Raising the minimum wage to at least $10 is an essential step towards moving low-income workers towards more economically secure lives. Equal pay for equal work that would help to reduce the gender wage gap is another critical step to move women and their dependent children out of poverty.  Female-headed households had less than half the income of households with a married couple: $35, 150 versus $76,500. The ratio of median earnings for women’s and men’s median earnings was 78.3 percent with numbers significantly widening for women of color.

So, while the policy and advocacy community might be relieved that poverty rates for 2013 has decreased somewhat – by 0.5 percent – there is much work to be done ahead in terms of supporting sensible legislation and demonstrating real leadership around making wages livable, fair and equal as well as strengthening safety net programs that have steadily eroded as a result of federal- and state-level cuts.

Tell us what you think about the state of inequality and poverty levels in the United States. Where is the economy headed? Are there opportunities to build economic security for the most vulnerable communities in the United States, including single mothers, low-income immigrants, and blacks? Can states lead the way in raising the minimum wage?

The writing and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute or Hunter College.