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Understanding Tomorrow’s Census Figures


We’ve released two pieces previewing tomorrow’s Census Bureau release of poverty, income, and health coverage figures for 2015:

  • Be Wary of Using Official Poverty Figures to Assess Long-Term Poverty Trends.  The official poverty data that the Census Bureau will release on September 13 will provide useful information concerning developments from 2014 to 2015, but will not provide the best assessment of longer-term trends.

    Analysts across the political spectrum agree that comparing the current official poverty rates to those of several decades ago produces limited and often misleading conclusions because the official rate fails to consider the benefits from non-cash benefits such as SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) and refundable tax credits.  These non-cash benefits and tax credits provide far more assistance than they did when the official poverty rate was established in the 1960s, and have led to a substantial reduction in economic hardship.  To see this, it’s necessary to use the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which the Census Bureau will also release September 13; the SPM counts the value of many non-cash benefits as well as refundable tax credits.  (The SPM data will also show the anti-poverty impact that major safety net programs had last year.)

    In addition, those using the poverty data to assess progress in the economy since the end of the recession should keep in mind the shifting role of the safety net.  While still much stronger than it was several decades ago, the safety net provides less support than it did during the recession and the early years of the recovery.  This factor, as well as changes in the survey questions it asks that Census adopted in 2013, may somewhat obscure recent progress. . . .

  • Upcoming Census Estimates Expected to Show Continued Major Gains in Health Coverage.  On September 13, the Census Bureau will issue its estimates of health coverage for 2015, based on its Current Population Survey (CPS) and American Community Survey (ACS).  Last year’s results showed historic coverage gains between 2013 and 2014 as a result of full implementation of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) major coverage expansions, which took effect January 1, 2014.  Data already available for 2015 from other reputable surveys suggest that the Census data will show further significant coverage gains. . . .