(The Root) — In recent weeks, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West re-upped their efforts to highlight what they say is poverty’s absence from the national political agenda, telling The Root in advance of their Poverty Tour 2.0, “Poor people have not in any way been a priority in the Obama administration … and of course we know poverty would be very low on the totem pole in a Romney administration.” Meanwhile, our Elon James White, in his Elongated Thoughts blog, counted poverty among the issues within the Democratic Party’s platform that he said needed to be better dealt with.
But today, at least, no one — and the Obama administration especially — can ignore the numbers. The Census Bureau has released its annual findings for income, poverty and health insurance coverage in a report that paints a statistical picture of how American families are faring economically (or, at least, how they were doing last year).
The poverty rate in 2011 — 15.0 percent — was virtually unchanged from the previous year, the Census Bureau reports. The African-American poverty rate nudged up 0.2 percentage points to 27.6 percent, representing nearly 10 million people living in poverty. Average household incomes dropped slightly. “Real median household income in the United States in 2011 was $50,054, a 1.5 percent decline from the 2010 median and the second consecutive annual drop,” according to the Census Bureau. For blacks, median household income dropped by 2.7 percent to $32,229.
The one bright spot was a slight decrease in the number of Americans lacking health insurance. In 2011, 15.7 percent of all people lacked health insurance, as did 19.5 percent of African Americans. That’s 480,000 more black people covered by health insurance over the previous year.
Brian Straessle, a spokesman for the Republican Study Committee, the organization of conservatives in the U.S. House of Representatives, said, “These are sad and upsetting numbers. For conservatives, it’s another sign that the government has done a poor job of waging the war on poverty it declared almost 50 years ago.”
Before the release of the report, a senior White House official told The Root that, when we take in the figures, which represent the year 2011, “It’s really important to understand how the economy was doing then,” and to recall that poverty rates typically rise and incomes typically fall two years after a recession. “We went through the worst financial crisis, and it takes a long time to get out of that,” he said, adding, “Everything suggests that what we’ll be looking at is historical data and that if you go up to 2012, all of the economic indicators suggest we are now starting to dig out in incomes, and they’re starting to rise.”
Second, he warned that the data don’t capture many of the policies that have been most important to President Obama’s efforts to deal with the crisis for middle-class and poor families. For example, he said, because the numbers are pretax, they don’t reflect benefits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit and food stamps — programs that are disproportionately used by and important to African Americans.
Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to inlcude the response of Brian Straessle of the Republican Study Committee.
Read the full report here.