U.S. poverty rate rose in 2022 while fewer were uninsured, Census says

U.S. poverty spiked over the last year, with child poverty more than doubling, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Tuesday, while the proportion of people lacking health insurance in 2022 dropped to an uncommonly low level.

The new figures reflect the uneven pace at which the government has ceased some forms of pandemic assistance as well as the calamitous effects of record inflation on household finances. Tuesday’s data offer the first statistical snapshot of how the wind-down of such programs has begun reshaping the country.

The poverty rate, taking into account government aid programs to the poor, was 12.4 percent in 2022, up from 7.8 percent the previous year, the census data shows. That spike follows two years of declines and coincided with the end of increased child tax credit payments and other government interventions.

The child tax credit payments are ending. Some families say they will struggle without them.

In contrast, the proportion of Americans without health insurance at any point during the year dwindled — from 8.3 percent in 2021 to 7.9 percent last year. The greater availability of health coverage was driven in part by a temporary source: the fact that no one on Medicaid, the state-federal program for those with low incomes, was dropped from the program in 2022, a result of another pandemic benefit that is now gradually ending.

Poverty researchers credited the expanded child tax credit payments with lifting millions of children out of poverty and driving down the child poverty rate to a record low of 5.2 percent in 2021. The new data show that 37.9 million people lived in poverty in 2022.

Tuesday’s Census release is “a story of what could have been,” said Arloc Sherman, vice president for data analysis and research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “The pandemic showed that we could stand up policies that could help families. These numbers underscore how much poverty is a policy choice.”

Tuesday Census data also noted a 2.3 percent drop in median household income, from $76,330 in 2021 to $74,580 in 2022. Real median earnings for both part-time and full-time workers also dropped over the last year by 2.2 percent.

Before Tuesday’s data release, poverty experts had been expecting a jump in the national rate. The main question was the size of that increase because of the competing effects of an improving 2022 labor market and record inflation.

The poverty rate of 12.4 percent represents what is known as the supplemental poverty rate, which incorporates the value of benefits such as child tax credits, earned income tax credits and stimulus checks. Tuesday’s Census release also includes a different statistic, the official poverty measure, which includes only monetary income. The official poverty rate for 2022 was 11.5 percent, compared to 11.6 percent in 2021.

Social scientists widely consider the supplemental measure as a more useful statistic, because it more accurately reflects the felt experience of U.S. residents with scanty income.

For 2022, the U.S. poverty level was $13,590 for individuals and $23,030 for a family of three.

The Census Bureau releases poverty, income and health insurance data annually based on the Current Population Survey, one of its main sources of nationwide data. The Census’s insurance data released Tuesday, combined with state-level data from the Census’s American Community Survey set to be released Thursday, is considered the most accurate portrait of health coverage in the United States.

Millions poised to lose Medicaid as pandemic coverage protections end

Leading up to Tuesday’s release, health policy experts said they were expecting the health coverage data to show an atypically low uninsured rate. The reason, they said, is because the first coronavirus relief law Congress adopted in 2020 promised states extra federal aid for Medicaid throughout the covid federal health emergency, as long as states suspended their normal practice of renewing eligibility for the program once a year. Every state agreed, so the Medicaid rolls continued to expand until earlier this year, when the continual eligibility promise ended and states once again began reviewing who qualifies for the program — a massive effort known as the “unwinding.”

The 2022 data show that 18.8 percent of people with some form of health coverage at any time last year were on Medicaid, comparable to the 18.9 percent in 2021. Overall, public insurance of all types accounted for 36.1 percent of all health coverage last year, nearly a half percentage point more than the 35.7 percent who held public coverage for some or all of 2021. That change was driven largely by an enrollment increase in Medicare, the federal insurance program for people who are age 65 and older or have disabilities, because of the aging of the U.S. population.

At the same time, the number of people who bought Affordable Care Act marketplace health plans continued to increase slightly for the third consecutive year.

Biden administration officials have praised the widened use of such health plans, intended for those who do not have access to affordable health benefits through a job, attributing their increasing popularity to larger federal tax credits available for the past couple of years under recent laws.

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