Spotlight Exclusives

Census Data Show We’re Finally Back to Pre-Recession Poverty Levels. Trump’s Budget Risks Erasing Those Gains.

Rebecca Vallas, Center for American Progress Rebecca Vallas, Center for American Progress, posted on

Today, the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual snapshot of poverty, income, and health insurance in the United States. And following 2015’s historic gains, 2016 was another banner year on all three fronts: Poverty is now finally back to pre-recession levels, dropping from 13.5 percent to 12.7 percent; median income is up 3.2 percent to $59,039; and the share of Americans without health coverage has continued to decline, reaching a new record low of 8.8 percent.

But while all this is cause for celebration, today’s data also serve as a stark reminder of how much is at stake in the current political climate. That’s because they reflect continued progress made in 2016 thanks to policies such as the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion and investments in programs that help families afford the basics, from Social Security to nutrition assistance, to tax credits for working families—all of which are at risk under President Trump’s and congressional Republicans’ budgets.

Ironically, as he’s been known to do on more than a few occasions, President Trump may try to claim credit for this continued progress, even though it predates the start of his term. But whether or not he pretends they’re his gains, the data make clear the difference policy choices make—and how much worse off struggling families would be under Trump’s Robin Hood in Reverse agenda.

New analysis by my Center for American Progress colleagues Rachel West and Kate Gallagher Robbins shines a light on just how much worse off poverty would be if Trump’s budget became law. If just three of Trump’s proposed cuts had been in place in 2015—the latest year for which data are available—a staggering 2.3 million more Americans would have been poor that year. This analysis takes into account Trump’s proposed deep cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (formerly Food Stamps); his call to eliminate the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, which helps 6.7 million Americans afford their energy bills; and the increased out-of-pocket medical costs millions of Americans would face due to Trump’s proposed rollback of Medicaid expansion.

Of course, these three cuts only scratch the surface of Trump’s agenda. His budget also calls for deep cuts to Social Security, critical disability programs, education and job training, school nutrition, job-creating infrastructure investments, and nearly every program or policy that helps working families Americans make ends meet and get ahead. The House Republican budget released this summer shares much of the same DNA. But even just the three budget cuts my colleagues looked at risk erasing all the gains we saw last year.

Meanwhile, Trump and congressional Republicans are pursuing massive tax giveaways for the ultra-rich and corporations, in an effort to bring about an historic upward redistribution of wealth under the guise of “tax reform.” Indeed, Trump’s proposed elimination of the estate tax alone—a tax that affects just the richest 0.2 percent of estates—would cost the same as feeding more than 6 million seniors through Meals on Wheels, yet another critical program he’s targeting for deep cuts.

Trump talked a good game during his campaign, pledging to fight for the “forgotten man and woman” and restore prosperity to communities that have been left behind. Meanwhile, Speaker Ryan has spent years styling himself as a supposed poverty crusader, famously taking a “poverty tour,” hosting a poverty summit featuring Republican presidential candidates, and releasing a big plan to overhaul key antipoverty programs. But today’s data serve as Exhibit A of the gargantuan gap between their rhetoric and the reality of their policies.

If Trump and Ryan were serious about cutting poverty and fighting for communities left behind, they’d embrace the policies that brought about declines in poverty and rising incomes in 2015 and 2016—like raising the minimum wage. State and local minimum wage increases were likely a major driver of the declines in poverty and rising incomes we saw over the past two years—and, tellingly, in states that had enacted minimum wage increases, low-wage workers saw faster wage growth in 2015 than workers in states whose minimum wages remained flat. They’d close the book on repealing the ACA and slashing Medicaid, programs that together have brought the nation’s uninsurance rate to historic lows. And they’d abandon their proposals to slash nutrition assistance and other programs that help families afford the basics, which cut poverty nearly in half in recent years while also boosting mobility in the long-term.

But instead, they seem hell-bent on snatching any gains working families have seen in recent years and funneling them upward so millionaires and billionaires can buy a second yacht.

So as we digest this year’s Census data, let’s not get out the balloons just yet. Instead, we should let them be a lesson to us about how much is at stake—and the policy agenda we need to build an economy that works for everyone instead of just the wealthy few.

Rebecca Vallas is the managing director of the poverty to prosperity program at the Center for American Progress and the host of Off-Kilter, a weekly radio show and podcast about poverty and inequality.

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