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Despite Improving Economy, Poverty Remains Unchanged In 2014


Despite an economy that's doing better and more jobs, the U.S. poverty rate stayed the same last year. New figures from the Census Bureau showed that almost 1 in 7, or about 47 million people, were poor in 2014, and median household income remained flat. There was some good news, though, when it came to the number of Americans with health insurance. NPR's Pam Fessler has more.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: The poverty rate was 14.8 percent last year, the same as the year before. That's not great, says Valerie Wilson of the Economic Policy Institute because 2014 was a year with an especially big growth and jobs.

VALERIE WILSON: But unfortunately, that did not translate into wage, growth, income growth or significantly reduce poverty rates.

FESSLER: And last year, a family of four living on about $24,000 or less was considered poor. The Census Bureau also says median household incomes stayed basically the same at almost $54,000. But there were some big disparities. While 10 percent of non-Hispanic whites were poor last year, the poverty rate for blacks and Hispanics was about two-and-a-half times higher. And while that wasn't a big change, Wilson says one change last year was very striking.

WILSON: African-American children saw an increase in their poverty rate this year by about 3.4 percentage points. And that was actually the only group of children for whom the poverty rate increased.

FESSLER: In fact, 37 percent of African-American children were poor. And the overall child poverty rate - 21 percent - was the highest of any age group. But Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University says there are some encouraging signs in an alternative measure also released today by the census. It shows the impact of safety net programs such as food stamps and tax breaks, something that the official poverty measure does not.

JANE WALDFOGEL: So the most important anti-poverty program for families with children are the refundable tax credits, the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit, and together, those are reducing child poverty by about 7 percentage points this year.

FESSLER: While that's a substantial decline, Waldfogel says poverty among children in the U.S. remains exceptionally high. Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute in New York sees a lot of troubling numbers in today's report. She says the addition of millions of jobs to the economy has had an uneven impact.

KAY HYMOWITZ: We're not seeing an increase in income for those who are not able to take advantage - full advantage of the knowledge economy and are pushed into low wage service jobs.

FESSLER: She'd like to see more emphasis on education and work incentives such as the earned income tax credit. Hymowitz notes that today's report shows that working families as well as those headed by married couples have far less poverty than those that are not.

HYMOWITZ: Single-mother families are five times as likely to be poor as married-couple families. Now that's quite a dramatic difference.

FESSLER: Although Hymowitz did notice a small but disturbing uptick in poverty last year among those with a bachelor's degree or higher and for families headed by married couples. One bright spot in today's report involves health insurance. The Census Bureau says almost 90 percent of Americans were insured last year, the first full year of Obamacare. That means nearly 9 million more people had coverage than in 2013. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.
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