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Five Things to Know About the Most Recent Census Income Report

Income’s up, but the picture is more complicated than that

No matter how you slice it, the most current Census Bureau income report is filled with juicy stats. (Tax Credits (Flickr/Creative Commons))
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You wouldn’t think of a dry census report as cause for thousands of analyses and hot takes, but the release of new figures by the U.S. Census Bureau this week prompted just that. If you haven’t been scouring the thousands of data points contained within the three reports, don’t worry. Here are five things you need to know about what’s inside:

Income Is Up…For the First Time in Years 

The biggest stat in the report could mean more money in your pocket. For the first time since before the Great Recession, real median household income—that is, income adjusted for inflation—increased. In 2015, the median income of an American household was $56,516, or 5.2 percent higher than the same figure for 2014. As Binyamin Appelbaum reports for The New York Times, it’s the largest increase in nearly a generation, breaking a pattern of economic stagnation that has seen economic recovery hit the U.S. gross domestic product, but not consumers themselves.

Family households (a householder and at least one other person related by birth, marriage or adoption) earned a median of $72,165 in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2015, while nonfamily households (either one person or one person living with non-relatives) made a median of $33,805. But the number still lags behind pre-recession figures—1.6 percent lower than the census figures for 2007, before the recession hit, and 2.4 percent lower than the highest-ever median household figure, which was achieved in 1999.

How Much You Make Depends On Where You Live—And Who You Are

Those income increases varied wildly depending on location, but all regions experienced a lift from 2014 to 2015. While the West saw a 6.4 percent increase in real median household income, that figure rose by only 2.9 percent in the South and 5.1 percent in the Midwest. The Northeast, where incomes rose 4.9 percent over one year, is still the area with the highest median household incomes—$62,182.

Family makeup, race, gender and age also play a part in the newly released numbers. Non-family female householders gained 8.7 percent in real median income between 2014 and 2015, compared with just 3.9 percent of non-family male householders. Despite those gains, however, women still earn a fraction of what men do: The female-to-male earnings ratio for 2014-2015 was 0.80, or 80 cents on the dollar. That ratio has not increased in a statistically significant way since 2007.

While native-born incomes rose less than those paid to foreign-born workers, non-citizens earn a median income of $45,137 compared to native-born workers’ $57,173. And racial gaps are present in the report, too: White workers’ wages have grown more than those of black and Asian workers. In 2015, white workers earned a median income of $60,109, a 5.6 percent change from 2014, compared with a 3.7 percent change for Asian workers who earned a median income of $77,166 in 2015, and black workers who experienced a 4.1 percent change from 2014, earning a median income of $36,898 in 2015.

Poverty Is Down, Too...

The report also contains a detailed analysis of poverty in the United States. A total of 43.1 million, or 13.5 percent of Americans, lived in poverty—defined as a total income of $24,257 for a family of four in 2015, compared with 39.5 million people or 22.4 percent of Americans in 1959. The total number of families in poverty was 10.4 percent of all Americans, down from 11.6 percent in 2014.

As in the income report, gender and age played a role in poverty calculations. Families with a single female head of household were the most likely to be poor (28.2 percent compared with just 5.4 percent of married households and 14.9 percent with male householders.) A total of 12.2 percent of men live in poverty, compared to 14.8 percent of women. Race was a predictor of poverty, with 24.1 percent of blacks and 21.4 percent of Hispanics in poverty compared to 9.1 of non-Hispanic whites. The South continues to be the poorest region, followed by the West and Midwest. However, poverty fell across the board.

Perhaps the most sobering figures in the poverty report were those dealing with age: a staggering 19.7 percent of children under age 18 live in poverty, compared to 12.4 percent of 18-to-64 year olds and 8.8 percent of those aged 65 and over.  

…But Those Numbers Are Contested

Poverty numbers are always among the most sensitive in such reports, but they are also strongly contested. In an editorial in The Washington Post, commentator Robert J. Samuelson writes that the poverty figures should not be trusted because they exclude large amounts of actual income in the form of non-cash benefits like food stamps and breakfast subsidies, tax refunds, and the like. However, the National Center for Children in Poverty argues that despite the existence of state supports and subsidies for children in poverty, access to such programs varies wildly by state and offer uneven support to working families.

The census report does include a section on its supplemental poverty measure, which takes government programs into account. However, that number is higher than the official poverty rate—14.3 percent of Americans compared with 13.5 percent using the other calculation. “The supplemental measure does not replace the official poverty measure and will not be used to determine eligibility for government programs,” noted the U.S. Census Bureau in a release.

The Reports Contain More—and There’s More to Come

If your interest is piqued by this overview, rejoice—there’s much more data packed into the report, like health insurance coverage numbers (90.9 percent, up from 89.6 percent in 2014 and up dramatically from before the Affordable Care Act). And there's more: the Bureau released figures today from the American Community Survey, which provides detailed information on the state and local level. Even if you only skim the figures, tables, charts and bullet points, the Census Bureau’s numbers are a great way to get a sense of the current state of American life—one wonky fact at a time.

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