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Longer-term view adds context to Census poverty data

Media Contact

Rebecca Valli

Today, the U.S. Census Bureau reported the American peoples’ 2016 experience with poverty, median income and health insurance.

Tom Hirschl, sociologist and co-author of “Chasing the American Dream: Understanding What Shapes Our Fortunes,” says that while the numbers today reflect an incremental improvement, middle-class and working-class Americans still feel insecure about their economic future. To assess economic risk over longer periods of time, Hirschl developed a poverty risk calculatoralong with his co-authors Mark Rank of Washington University.

Hirschl says: 

“Overall the report suggests that the country is recovering from the 2007 and 2008 Great Recession. Median income is up 3.2 percent, 9 percent remain without health insurance coverage and the percentage of Americans living below the federal poverty line is holding steady at 12.5 percent.

“While these numbers reflect incremental improvement, they have not cancelled out peoples’ experience with the most recent economic downturn. There are various accounts from public opinion polls and from the popular press indicating that middle class and working-class Americans still feel economically insecure.

“One way to understand this attitude is to take a longer-term view by calculating the economic risk of poverty over a 5-year period using tools such as the poverty risk calculator. I developed this calculator using a longitudinal, nationally representative data set with Mark Rank at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Over the past several decades Census Bureau reports have found that the average one year risk of poverty tends to vary between 11 and 15 percent. However, if we examine the calculator estimates for longer periods of time, the likelihood of poverty is larger. For example, a white male aged 20 to 24 with at least some college, unmarried, has a 5-year risk of poverty equal to 20.4 percent; a nonwhite male with the same characteristics has a 45.3 percent risk of encountering poverty within a 5-year period.”

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