President Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers said in July that America's war on poverty has finally ended, but the estimated 40 million Americans living below the federal poverty line would likely disagree — and the latest Census Bureau report indicates they would be correct.
On Wednesday, the Census Bureau released its 2017 annual report on the poor that offered a stark counterpoint, suggesting that the national recovery has bypassed many of the 40 million to 45 million Americans estimated to be living below the federal poverty level.
While median household income rose 1.8 percent last year, the national poverty rate remained stubbornly high at 12.3 percent. That was just a slight decrease from the previous year’s level of 12.7 percent, according to the federal government’s most comprehensive annual gauge of economic hardship.
The supplemental poverty measure for 2017, widely regarded by economists as more accurate, was even higher, 13.9 percent in 2017, essentially unchanged from the year before. That is an improvement from the recent high of 16 percent recorded in 2013. But economists and advocates for poor people say the relatively modest gains over the last few years are fragile, endangered by the Trump administration’s policies and vulnerable to a long-overdue economic downturn.
Timothy Smeeding, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies poverty and economic mobility, said it isn’t good if this is the best the U.S. can do:
“Things really tapered off this year, after a serious drop in previous years,” he said. “In terms of the boom, the party has lasted a long time, a lot longer than we thought, but not everybody is getting invited — people who are working several jobs, taking jobs without benefits, kids who are growing up in poverty. The fruits of the recovery are not being spread around evenly.”
Nevertheless, Trump is moving to pare back safety net programs, justifying such steps in part by insisting poverty is no longer a pressing issue in the United States.
The White House, bolstering its case for program cuts and new work requirements for recipients of federal aid, has gone so far as to question the validity of the government’s traditional calculations for poverty.
Mr. Trump has pressed Congress and his cabinet to impose strict new work requirements on recipients of Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, moves that could strip some beneficiaries of their benefits, and has supported new work rules in Republican-controlled states, like Arkansas and Kentucky.
Trump often mentions the unemployment rate, which is sitting at 3.9 percent and has decreased for all demographics, and added jobs as proof Americans are doing well — but this can be misleading:
David Brady, who runs a poverty research center at the University of California, Riverside, said the report on Wednesday undermined a chief contention of conservatives: that the wide availability of work would, by itself, eradicate poverty.
Wages for low-income workers have not kept pace with the cost of living in high-expense states, including California, where rising housing costs have contributed to a 20 percent poverty rate that ranks the highest in the nation, Mr. Brody (sic) said. That has increased the need for safety net programs, especially housing assistance.
And the poor are getting poorer. The poverty threshold in 2017 was $24,858 for a family of four. The percentage of families of living on half that income, in constant dollars, has nearly doubled since 1975, to 5.7 percent from 3.5 percent, the report showed.
“The level of poverty for people with the lowest incomes seems to be on the uptick,” said Jennifer Jones Austin, the chief executive of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, an anti-poverty advocacy group that represents 170 agencies operating in New York City. “The Trump administration says the war on poverty is over. That’s not reality.”