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Census: Income down, but COVID-19 stimulus prevented widespread poverty

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The number of Americans living in poverty increased for the first time in five years in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic cost millions of Americans jobs and income, the U.S. Census Bureau said Tuesday.

But federal stimulus payments approved by Congress and the Trump administration helped keep more than 5 million Americans out of poverty, the bureau said.

Last year, 11.4 percent of Americans — or 37.2 million people — were living in poverty, a threshold that stands at $26,246 in yearly income for a family of four. That share was up 1 percent, or 3.3 million people, over the previous year. 

The level of poverty in the United States might have been much worse except for federal intervention, according to another method of measuring those in poverty: the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which the bureau has used to include government programs that assist low-income families and individuals. That stood at 9.1 percent, 2.6 percentage points lower than in 2019.

The Supplemental Poverty Measure highlighted the influence of the first rounds of COVID-19 stimulus efforts in combatting poverty. The Census Bureau said those stimulus efforts kept 11.7 million people out of poverty, the most successful government program in keeping people above the poverty line with the exception of Social Security.

“I think this really shows the importance of the social safety net,” said Liana Fox, chief of the Poverty Statistics Branch in the Census Bureau’s Social, Economic and Housing Statistics Division.

Poverty rates rose most for non-Hispanic whites, to 8.1 percent, and Hispanic Americans, to 17 percent. The poverty rate among Black Americans stood at 19.5 percent, not a statistically significant difference from 2019. 

The overall real median income for Americans stood at $67,521 last year, down 2.9 percent from the previous peak of $69,560 in 2019. Americans who are over 65 years old saw their incomes drop most substantially, at a 3.3 percent rate. 

The statistics show the devastating impacts of the steep but brief recession last year that fell most heavily on those at the lowest end of the economic spectrum, as restaurants and retail stores shuttered and many went out of business altogether. 

Among the millions who lost a job last year, 53.5 percent were making less than $34,000 a year, the Census Bureau said. That rate was substantially higher than the 2007-2009 recession, when just 35.4 percent of job losses were among those on the lowest economic rungs. 

The coronavirus economic shock caused the steepest job loss since the Census Bureau began measuring yearly median income and employment rates in 1967. 

Tags economy Poverty Poverty threshold
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