Spotlight Exclusives

Eight Promising Signs on Poverty from 2017

Spotlight Staff Spotlight Staff, posted on

The scope and scale of poverty often seem overwhelming, and it can be easy to grow frustrated with the lack of progress on the federal level. But the last year has also seen important signs of progress, including the falling poverty rate and bipartisan momentum around paid leave and criminal justice reform. Even in the absence of federal action, states and cities have led the way in combatting poverty and expanding economic opportunity in 2017.

As the year comes to a close, Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity rounded up eight of these promising trends, which we have covered throughout the year through our commentaries, original journalism, blog posts, and news curation.

  1.  Poverty Rate Falls: The official U.S. poverty rate fell to 12.7% in 2016, returning to pre-recession levels for the first time. The figure had been as high as 15.1% in 2010. The Supplemental Poverty Measure, which is designed to more accurately account for cost of living expenses as well as government benefits, also declined from 14.5% in 2015 to 14.0% in 2016. And research by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that child poverty fell to an all-time low of 15.6%.
  2. Uninsured Rate Hits Record Low: Data released in February by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed the uninsured rate at a recorded low of 8.8% across the first nine months of 2016. There were 20.4 million fewer uninsured persons than in 2010 (when the Affordable Care Act was passed) according to the survey.
  3. Basic Income Gains Supporters: Bolstered by support from business and tech leaders, the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has gained considerable traction over the past year. In May, the Hawaii state legislature passed a bill to study the potential of UBI in the state; Tiffany Hill highlighted the legislation in a journalism piece for Spotlight. Stockton, California went a step further, announcing plans to pilot a program that will provide hundreds of residents with $500 per month for the next several years. This will make Stockton the first city in the U.S. to implement such a policy.
  4.  Cities Confront Eviction: Harvard Professor Matthew Desmond drew attention to the way our housing system perpetuates poverty with his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 book Evicted. In an October Spotlight piece, Jared Brey examined how “the movement to guarantee legal representation for low-income tenants…has picked up steam since the book was published.” In the past year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law legislation that offers free legal assistance to low-income tenants facing eviction, Philadelphia Mayor Phil Kenney created a taskforce to try and reduce the number of evictions in the city, and the District of Columbia included $4.5 million in its budget for legal aid for low-income residents at risk of eviction.
  5. States Boost Wages: States and localities have been active in finding ways to raise incomes. The minimum wage increased in 21 states in 2017 either because of automatic increases or changes approved in 2016. Eight states also implemented or strengthened their Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) in 2017. In an encouraging show of bipartisan cooperation, four of the eight states had governments in which neither party controlled both the governor’s mansion and the state legislature.
  6. Parental Leave Gains Steam: Washington state and the District of Columbia approved paid family leave laws in 2017, joining California, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. In May, a bipartisan AEI-Brookings working group released a report endorsing paid parental family leave. “There also was absolutely no disagreement that America needs to push forward on a paid leave policy,” explained Aparna Mathur, an AEI scholar and co-director of the working group.
  7. Bipartisan Action Around Criminal Justice: Policymakers and advocates from across the political spectrum have shown an increasing willingness to revisit harsh criminal justice policies and consider alternatives to incarceration. In conversations with Spotlight, James Forman Jr. and Peter Edelman – who both published books on mass incarceration in 2017 – highlighted the effects of the criminal justice system on low-income Americans, but both also recognized that positive steps and reforms are underway. In June, Spotlight profiled Louisiana’s efforts to offer parole to 300 inmates who had received life sentences as juveniles. Then in September, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bipartisan amendment to limit the Department of Justice’s attempt to expand civil asset forfeiture. In a 2016 Spotlight commentary, Nathan Leamer explained how civil asset forfeiture – “law enforcement’s ability to seize money and property without evidence of a criminal act” – hurts low-income communities, and highlighted the growing bipartisan opposition to the policy.
  8.  Philanthropies Announce New Commitments: Foundations and individual donors have also made sizeable investments in efforts to combat poverty and promote opportunity. Notable examples include Steve and Connie Ballmer’s six-year $60 million dollar investment in addressing educational disparities, JPMorgan Chase’s announcement of a $40 million project in Chicago and a $10 million effort in Washington, D.C., aimed at combatting urban poverty, and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation – whose work largely focuses on poverty and inequality – adding another $1 billion dollars to its endowment.


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