The national poverty report produced by the Census Bureau in September showed the poverty rate to have fallen from 14.8% to 13.5% between 2014 and 2015. This was much welcomed news after more than a decade of very little improved economic opportunity for those at the lower end of the wage and income distribution.
While most attention at the time was paid to the drop in the poverty rate, the report’s appendices indicate the number of poor persons in the U.S. fell by more than 3.5 million from 2014 to 2015. Recent progress on poverty should bolster support for the safety net and encourage us to do more.
In simple numerics, this decline in poverty is the single largest decrease in the number of poor persons since the War on Poverty (decline of 4.7 million persons from 1965 to 1966). It also represents the largest percentage reduction in the number of poor persons since 1968 (-7.6% from 2014-15 versus -8.6% from 1967-68). To put these figures in contemporary perspective, the one-year decline in the number of poor persons from 2014 to 2015 is comparable to the three-year decline in poverty seen from 1998 to 2000 — the tail-end of the historic economic expansion of the 1990s.
Falling poverty largely is due to improved economic opportunity and higher wages in recent years, but it would be amiss to conclude that safety net programs are not part of the explanation. Indeed, there is significant evidence that programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) have helped lift millions out of poverty and prevented many millions more from falling into poverty. One can click at this Center on Budget and Policy Priorities interactive to see how public programs reduce poverty in your state. We also know that nonprofit organizations fill critical gaps in the public safety net, reaching populations in need that may not qualify for public assistance.
We commonly focus on poverty rates — the share of the population with income below the federal poverty level — to assess trends in poverty. Yet, trends in the number of poor persons reflect the changing demands upon communities and social service providers. It is good news, therefore, that decreases in poverty appear to show up in assessments of safety net provision. For example, a recent survey of U.S. mayors suggests problems of hunger and homelessness have been improving in many major cities since 2014. The Salvation Army’s Human Needs Index shows declines in receipt of many types of emergency assistance since 2014. Public assistance program caseloads also are lower now than just a few years ago.
Despite reductions in poverty over the last few years, we should see maintaining support for the safety net as an imperative in the coming years. Poverty has fallen, but the number of persons with income just above the federal poverty line did not declined substantially from 2014 to 2015. Community-based organizations often have demand for assistance that still exceeds available resources. Yet, future funding for safety net programs and human service organizations appears uncertain. Proposed cuts to public safety net programs will create a safety net not able to respond to rising need in the future. Many nonprofits serving the poor have not seen private giving rise appreciably during the last decade and there are concerns that future federal policy will further discourage giving to charity.
Continued progress on poverty depends on the economy for sure, but it also depends on our collective will and compassion to support those trying to grab the next rung on the ladder. Maintaining our public commitments to safety net programs is key to ensuring that help is available to those in poverty or at risk of becoming poor. It also is important to recognize our responsibility to increase private commitments to charities and nonprofits that work with the most vulnerable among us. Most important, we must resist the argument that falling poverty in America means we do not need to strengthen our safety net.