Poverty, employment data tell of improving well-being in Arkansas, with caveats | Arkansas Blog

Poverty, employment data tell of improving well-being in Arkansas, with caveats

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Poverty in the United States

New U.S. Census Bureau data released last week paints a positive picture for Arkansas, at least in relative terms. The state- and local-level statistics come from the 2016 American Community Survey.

Arkansas is still one of the poorest states in the U.S. and has a poverty rate well above the national average. But, as Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families highlighted this week, both the poverty rate and the child poverty rate have declined in Arkansas since 2010. Advocates qualifies that news, however:
While still far above national averages, our child poverty rate is down to about 24 percent. It hasn’t been this low in a decade, but that is still nearly one in four kids growing up in poverty. This news is also tempered by remaining racial inequities.
National figures from 2016 show that more of the gains of the economic recovery began trickling down to average households during the last years of the Obama administration. The poverty rate in the U.S. as a whole decreased by 0.8 percentage points in 2016, to 12.7 percent. The figure for Arkansas was around 17 percent. The Supplemental Poverty Measure, a more accurate metric that factors in the effect of government benefits enjoyed by households (which the traditional poverty measure doesn't account for), also declined.

The Census figures show that median household income strengthened as well. The New York Times reported earlier this week:
American households saw strong income growth last year, the bureau reported, and the gains stretched across the economic spectrum. A closely watched measure, median household income, jumped for the second straight year, reaching $59,039 — a 3.2 percent increase after inflation.
Again, these figures reflect the state of households in 2016 — that is, in Obama's economy, not Trump's. That isn't to say the economy hasn't done well under President Trump, just that the Census data released last week were gathered before he took office.

Another caveat: Though families in the middle of the income distribution benefit from a rising tide, their gains are far lower than those enjoyed by the rich. That is, income and wealth inequality continues to increase, as it has for decades and as it continued to do under Obama. From Bloomberg:
Even with the overall progress on incomes, the gap between the top and bottom earners has widened since the recession. Since 2007, average inflation-adjusted income has climbed more than 10 percent for households in the highest fifth of the earnings distribution, and it’s fallen 3.2 percent for the bottom quintile. Incomes of the top 5 percent jumped 12.8 percent over the period.
Arkansas Advocates also recently took a look at employment figures in its "State of Working Arkansas 2017" report. The state continues to enjoy record-low unemployment, with a jobless rate of 3.5 percent in August. That's a big positive, but it too needs to be qualified. Advocates Senior Policy Analyst Eleanor Wheeler writes:
Economically, things are changing for the better. However, some things are not changing very much at all. The gender wage gap remains in Arkansas. Black and Hispanic workers in Arkansas still work for lower wages and have a harder time finding employment than other groups. These gaps are stubborn stains on the good news of our economic recovery. These stains can either be ground in or lifted out depending on the policy choices of lawmakers at the State Capitol. 
Then there's the quality of the jobs themselves, and how much they pay. Rising median wages (and the state's declining poverty rate) both indicate good things, yet:
Arkansans have seen steadily increasing median wages that coincide with our dropping unemployment rates, as expected. However, when compared to the nation and our neighboring states, these wage gains are not as impressive as our employment measures. Arkansas has been historically near the bottom in terms of regional median wage. Arkansas and Mississippi have been trading places between last and second-to-last in this metric for decades. 



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