The share of Americans living in poverty in 2019 fell for the fifth year in a row and dropped to the lowest level on record, but all the gains in recent years are being jeopardized by the widespread economic devastation caused by the coronavirus.
The poverty rate slid to 10.5% last year from 11.8% in 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau said Tuesday, marking the lowest level since the government began publishing the data in 1959.
The number of Americans living in poverty sank by 4.2 million to 34 million.
The official rate of poverty declined sharply since a recent peak of 14.8% in 2014, with all major groups seeing notable declines.
The poverty rate fell by 2.8 points last year to 7.3% for Asian Americans, by 1.0 point to 9.1% for whites, by 1.8 points to 15.7% for Hispanic Americans and by 2 points to 18.8% for Blacks.
A separate measure of poverty that takes into account government aid for the poor showed the poverty rate in 2019 was somewhat higher at 11.7%.
Some and perhaps most of the gains in the past five years, however, are in danger of being reversed by the coronavirus pandemic. The viral outbreak has thrown tens of millions of people out of work.
The government’s monthly scorecard for the U.S. labor market shows 13.6 million are unemployed. And an even larger 29 million people are collecting benefits though state and federal unemployment programs. Economists say it will take several years or longer to make up all the ground lost in the past six months alone.
Median household income, meanwhile, also improved in 2019 after being nearly stagnant the year before. It jumped 6.8% to $68,703 from a revised $64,324 in 2018.
The number of people without health insurance also fell slightly to 26.1 million from 27.5 million in 2018, reflecting an improved economy.
What might keep more Americans from falling back into poverty, at least temporarily, are massive government benefits for the unemployed. Yet those benefits could run out unless a stalemated Congress agrees to another aid package.
Democrats and Republicans are deadlocked on how much to spend and where the money should go.