Spotlight Exclusives

2019 Recap: Big Stories on Poverty and Opportunity

Spotlight Staff Spotlight Staff, posted on

The past year featured a range of news, debate, and legislation, and news around poverty and opportunity. Spotlight has compiled some of the biggest stories from 2019 below.

  • Poverty Rate Drops: The poverty rate declined from 12.3 percent in 2017 to 11.7 percent in 2018, the fourth consecutive year in which the figure declined. The Supplemental Poverty Measure, which factors in government benefits not accounted for in the official measure, declined from 13 percent to 12.8 percent. Angela Rachidi of the American Enterprise Institute dove further into the stats in a piece for Spotlight noting that the “official poverty rates for individuals and children in 2018 were at their lowest levels in 17 years.”
  • More Americans Are Uninsured: Despite the strong economy, the uninsured rate crept up for the first time since 2009, rising from 7.9 percent in 2017 to 8.5 percent in 2018. The number of uninsured children also rose by 400,000 to over 8 million between 2016 and 2018 according to research by Joan Alker of the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families. Explanations for the decline vary, but potential answers include the repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s insurance mandate, stricter eligibility requirements for some programs, and distrust of government, especially among households with immigrants, making people less likely to register for benefits.
  • Candidates Discuss Poverty and Opportunity: The election is still nearly a year away, but the presidential campaign is in full swing with the candidates debating a range of issues and proposals related to poverty and opportunity. The debate over single payer health insurance has become a defining issue in the Democratic primary, but a variety of other topics have also risen to prominence. Last year, Spotlight highlighted the growing interest in a universal basic income, a topic that has received further prominence due to Andrew Yang placing it at the center of his campaign. You can keep up with the candidate positions on poverty-related issues with our 2020 election tracker.

    Andrew Yang has been a champion of a universal basic income

  • Policymakers Look to Tax Credits: Senators Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) made news just this week with a new proposal that would create an additional Child Tax Credit of $2,500 (the first $1,500 of which would be fully refundable) and also making the existing Child Tax Credit more generous. Bipartisan interest in tax credits continues at the state level as well, with Utah becoming the 30th state to implement an Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) earlier this month.
  • Work Requirements Generate Controversy: The debate over work requirements for safety net programs has taken center stage at both the state and federal level this year. The Trump administration allowed states the option to institute work requirements on Medicaid last year, but Arkansas, New Hampshire and Kentucky had their new requirements put on hold by court rulings. Recently-elected Democratic Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear announced in November that he would scrap the state’s proposed work requirements upon taking office.

    Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear takes the oath of office

  • Benefits for Immigrants Come Under Debate: The Trump administration introduced a “public charge” rule that would allow the government more flexibility to deny green cards or visas to immigrants likely to use public assistance programs such as housing supports or Medicaid. Supporters see the measure as an attempt to promote self-sufficiency, while opponents argue it is legally dubious and likely to lower immigration and harm families. Various versions of the measure have been blocked by courts, although an eventual appeal to the Supreme Court seems likely.
  • Localities Look to Build New Affordable Housing: Cities and states are increasingly looking to reduce housing construction regulations as a way of spurring the creation of more affordable housing. As Kalena Thomhave documented in a September Spotlight journalism piece, Minneapolis and Oregon both passed laws this year allowing for higher density land use, and other states and localities may be soon to follow. Thomhave explains that any changes from these policies will likely take time, but “housing costs should indeed fall” as the supply rises.
  • Promising Research Underway: New research findings and ongoing projects are providing hints as to potential poverty solutions of the future. Opportunity Insights, the nonpartisan Harvard-based policy institute, has been at the front lines of new research around promoting opportunity. Earlier this year, Spotlight highlighted a recent report showing the dramatic impact of supports designed to help families move to higher-opportunity neighborhoods. Recent years have also seen increased attention on the long-term effects of poverty on development. Baby’s First Years, a $16 million three-year project  overseen by some of the top poverty researchers across the nation, is working to test the impact of poverty reduction on cognition and brain development by providing mothers of young children with unconditional cash transfers.
  • Opportunity Zones Draw Attention: The 2017 federal tax cut included a provision providing tax incentives for investments in new projects in select low-income communities (or “Opportunity Zones) across the country. The proposal generated bipartisan support and has received significant attention, but preliminary results have been mixed. A 2018 Brookings Institution report found the early results to be “promising ,” although more recent evidence suggests that investments may be going towards luxury developments in gentrifying areas.



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