BEYOND THE NUMBERS
Previewing Tomorrow’s Census Figures
Here are four key things to look for tomorrow when the Census Bureau releases figures on health coverage, poverty, and median income in 2014.
Last year likely brought historic gains in health coverage. Tomorrow’s release will provide the first evidence from the Current Population Survey and American Community Survey — the most authoritative sources of health coverage information at the national and state levels, respectively — of the effects of health reform’s major coverage expansions, which took effect starting January 1, 2014. But data already available for 2014 from other public and private surveys suggest that the Census data will show historic coverage gains.
For example, preliminary results from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) show that both the share and number of Americans without health coverage in 2014 were the lowest on record (see graph). The number of uninsured fell by nearly 9 million in 2014, nearly four times more than in any previous year.
Moreover, just-released NHIS data, as well as the most recent private survey data, show continued declines in the number of uninsured in 2015.
Job growth in 2014 should mean lower poverty and higher median income. There were 2.7 million more nonfarm jobs in 2014 than a year earlier, the largest job gain in any year since 2000. The number of long-term unemployed (those out of work for 27 weeks or more) dropped by more than 1 million or 25 percent, the most in 30 years. And the employment rate of adults in their prime working years of 25 to 54 rose more (in percentage-point terms) than in any year since 1988, though remaining well below its pre-recession level. These solid improvements make it relatively likely that poverty fell and inflation-adjusted median household income rose in 2014.
The Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) will show the impact of safety net programs targeted for cuts. This year, for the first time, Census will release poverty data using the SPM — which counts more forms of government assistance than the official poverty measure — at the same time as the official poverty statistics. The SPM poverty report will show the anti-poverty effects of SNAP (formerly food stamps), the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit, unemployment insurance, rent subsidies, Social Security, and other income supports.
Historical comparisons based on the official poverty measure will miss key facts. Some policymakers and pundits might use the new poverty data to argue that federal anti-poverty programs are ineffective, contending that while the official poverty rate fell sharply between 1959 and 1969, it’s changed relatively little since then (apart from fluctuations due to the business cycle). But comparing poverty rates in the 1960s and today using the official measure yields highly misleading results. The non-cash programs like SNAP, the EITC, and rental vouchers, which the official measure doesn’t count, constitute a far larger part of the safety net today than 50 years ago, and most analysts favor including them when measuring poverty.