NC Budget and Tax Center

Higher earnings and decreased poverty point to a slow but positive recovery

New data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey sheds new light on the nations and North Carolina’s efforts at economic recovery. Here are a few takeaways from the nation-wide data:

  • Between 2014 and 2015, the national poverty rate decreased by 1.2 percent, bringing the official rate down to 13.5 percent, or 43.1 million people. This is not insignificant as it is the largest annual poverty rate decrease since 1999.
  • In 2015, median household incomes rose to $56,516, 5.2 percent higher than in 2014. This is the first year in which median household incomes have increased since 2007, a year before the recession began.
  • Not everyone has benefited from these positive national trends. Despite an overall increase in income, household earnings in rural communities across the nation remained unchanged. Additionally, income inequality, the gap between the wealthy and the poor, has remained the same.

Although state-level data released today is a preliminary estimate, it too paints a picture of slow, relative progress:

  • The CPS estimates that 15.3 percent of North Carolinians were in poverty in 2015. That is down from 17.1 percent in 2014.
  • While it appears that poverty is decreasing, it is still well above pre-recession levels. Additionally, North Carolina still lags behind its neighbor, South Carolina, which saw a 2.2 percent decrease in poverty from 2014 to 2015.

Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, praises the positive national measures and highlights important policy choices to ensure this growth continues:

“The welcome progress of 2015 reflects both reasonably “tight” labor markets and improved government policies.  As the economy neared full employment, average real earnings rose.  In addition, state and local minimum wage increases gave many low-income workers a further income boost.  And health reform reversed the once-stubborn trend of shrinking health insurance coverage, fueling coverage expansions.  Even so, standards of living still haven’t fully rebounded to where they were before the Great Recession caused income to fall and poverty to rise substantially….

To sustain across-the-board progress, the Federal Reserve should continue to promote tight labor markets, especially given continued low inflation.  In addition, federal policymakers should move forward as planned to implement a new rule making more salaried workers with moderate incomes eligible for overtime, and the President and Congress at long last should raise the federal minimum wage, which has lost considerable purchasing power.  Policymakers also should further expand refundable tax credits for the working poor and expand access to child care for low-income families with children.”

While there is much to celebrate, there is still plenty of work still to be done.

As Elise Gould, Senior Economist at the Economic Policy Institute, points out, “It is certainly a good start. But, we’ll need a run of years like this to restore the income losses suffered during the Great Recession for most American families, let alone make up for a generation of income growth that lagged far behind the economy’s potential.”

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