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U.S. Census Report: Household Incomes Rise In 2015

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

There's some good news today on the economic well-being of Americans, and it comes from the Census Bureau. Its annual report on income and poverty shows a sharp improvement in the finances of the typical American household. In fact the increase in median household incomes is one of the largest in nearly 50 years, and there was a big decline in the percentage of Americans living below the poverty line. NPR's John Ydstie reports.

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: Robert Greenstein, one of Washington's best-known economic policy wonks, says this report is the best annual income and poverty report he's seen in decades.

ROBERT GREENSTEIN: This is an excellent report. There's no other way to put it. The three key indicators of well-being - income, poverty health insurance - all moved decisively in the right direction.

YDSTIE: After years of no significant gains, the Census Bureau says that in 2015 the income for the median household rose almost $2,800. That's a 5.2 percent increase for the household right in the middle of the income ladder, putting its annual income at about $56,500. That's by far the best increase since the Great Recession. And Trudi Renwick, an economic specialist at the Census Bureau, told reporters in a telephone news conference the gain is broad-based.

TRUDI RENWICK: It's up in all four regions. It's up for almost every racial group, and it's one of the largest year-to-year increases in median household income that we've ever had.

YDSTIE: The increase in incomes helped drive the poverty rate down more than a full percentage point in 2015. Greenstein, who is president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank, says government policies, like an increase in the minimum wage in a number of cities and states, helped boost incomes, but...

GREENSTIEN: The single-biggest driver on the income and poverty side is more jobs, broader employment, tighter labor market that also pushes up wages. And on the health insurance side, the critical factor is the coverage expansions of the Affordable Care Act.

YDSTIE: In 2015 the number of people without health insurance dropped to 29 million, down from 33 million in 2014. Robert Doar, a fellow in poverty studies at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, also welcomed the report.

ROBERT DOAR: I think it's a good start. It's been a long wait. There are significant declines in poverty and significant increases in median income, which is good news.

YDSTIE: But Doar says the poverty rate remains elevated.

DOAR: It's still a full percentage point above what it was prior to the recession, so I think we could do still better.

YDSTIE: Median household incomes are also around $1,500 below levels reached in the late 1990s, says Robert Greenstein.

GREENSTIEN: We're still not back to where we were before the Great Recession hit. We need further progress.

YDSTIE: Greenstein believes one key to progress is for the Fed to continue to encourage growth by holding off raising interest rates. John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ydstie has covered the economy, Wall Street, and the Federal Reserve at NPR for nearly three decades. Over the years, NPR has also employed Ydstie's reporting skills to cover major stories like the aftermath of Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. He was a lead reporter in NPR's coverage of the global financial crisis and the Great Recession, as well as the network's coverage of President Trump's economic policies. Ydstie has also been a guest host on the NPR news programs Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. Ydstie stepped back from full-time reporting in late 2018, but plans to continue to contribute to NPR through part-time assignments and work on special projects.
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