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Census: Pre-Pandemic Economic Gains Uneven Across States, Races

The economic gains before COVID-19 sent the economy tumbling were uneven across states as well as racial and ethnic groups, according to American Community Survey (ACS) data that the Census Bureau released yesterday. And the pandemic wiped out much of this progress for millions of families who are having trouble putting food on the table, finding work, and paying the rent or mortgage. The unequal progress before the pandemic and the hardship that COVID has wrought — hitting communities of color especially deeply — reinforce the need for swift, bold federal and state action to address the hardship of millions of families and individuals.

Median household incomes rose in 38 states from 2017 to 2019, the ACS data show (our analysis uses two years of data to improve the reliability of state-level estimates), but the gains were much more widespread for some racial and ethnic groups than others:

  • White, non-Hispanic median household incomes rose in 39 states plus Washington, D.C.;
  • Latinx household incomes rose in 19 states;
  • Black household incomes rose in 18 states plus D.C.;
  • Asian American household incomes rose in 15 states; and
  • American Indian and Alaska Native household incomes rose in 5 states.

Moreover, the ACS data don’t incorporate the widespread economic harm from the pandemic. Newer data from this summer paint a more accurate picture of current hardship across the country:

  • In 30 states plus D.C., at least 1 in 10 adults reported that their household sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the last seven days. Louisiana families suffered the most hardship, with 17 percent of adults falling into this category.
  • In 15 states plus D.C., at least 1 in 5 adults with children reported that their kids sometimes or often didn’t eat enough in the last seven days because they couldn’t afford it. Again, Louisiana families fared the worst, with 28 percent of adults with kids falling into this category.
  • In 26 states, at least 1 in 5 adult renters reported they were behind on rent. In four states, the figure exceeded 30 percent, with Alabama renters struggling the most: 36 percent were behind on rent.
  • In 30 states plus D.C., at least in 1 in 4 children lived in a family that wasn’t getting enough to eat, was behind on housing payments, or both. In four states plus D.C., the figure exceeded 33 percent, with Mississippi children facing the most hardship (38 percent).

While the sample sizes for individual states are too small to accurately break down these data by race and ethnicity, national data clearly show that the pandemic’s economic fallout is particularly affecting Black, Latino, Indigenous, and immigrant households. For example, Black and Latino households are reporting food insecurity at twice the rates of white households.

These disproportionate impacts reflect harsh, longstanding inequities — often stemming from structural racism — in education, employment, housing, and health care that the current crisis is exacerbating. And they make the need for bold, antiracist state policy solutions that advance equity all the greater. Three principles should guide state policymakers in these equity efforts:

  • Target aid to those most in need due to COVID-19 and the resulting economic crisis;
  • Advance antiracist and equitable policies — both short- and long-term — to dismantle persistent racial, gender, and economic inequities and other barriers that non-dominant groups and identities experience; and
  • Protect state finances to preserve the foundations of long-term economic growth and opportunity.

State policymakers aren’t the only ones who need to act. The President and Congress must also move swiftly to provide more relief that matches the extraordinary needs of households and our economy. This includes boosting vital programs such as SNAP (food stamps) and housing assistance, extending enhanced federal unemployment benefits, and allocating more aid to states and local governments to help prevent further layoffs and cuts to public services.