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U.S. household income increases for third straight year to $61,372, census data show

Census-compiled income and poverty rates are used to gauge the economic well-being of the nation and remain tools for lawmakers in deciding policy.
A Bank Of America Corp. Branch Ahead Of Earnings Figures
Customers use ATMs in Los Angeles in 2015.Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Americans are earning slightly more in household income.

The median U.S. household income increased in 2017 to $61,372 — a third straight year of growth — while the poverty rate dipped to 12.3 percent, relatively unchanged from 2016, according to Census Bureau data released Wednesday.

Despite the 1.8 percent rise in the median household income last year from 2016, when Americans earned $60,309, it was not as impressive as the growth in the previous two years. The median income, adjusted for inflation, is the point at which half of the households surveyed have income below that number and half above it.

The new data also shows the rate of Americans who have health insurance — and last year, more people were covered, the Census Bureau found.

Nearly a million more people had some type of health insurance, mostly because of provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

About 9.1 percent of the population went without health insurance in 2015, and that number fell to 8.8 percent in 2016 and remained relatively unchanged in 2017, when about 28.5 million people didn't have coverage.

In 2010, before the Affordable Care Act went into effect, 16.3 percent of the population went without health insurance. The majority of those insured last year had private coverage as opposed to one provided by the government.

"That's a big story here: Over the last five years, the number of the rate of the uninsured has been dropping pretty significantly, but now it's bottomed out or leveled off," said Mark Rank, a professor at the University of Washington in St. Louis who studies poverty. "You can look at what the current administration is trying to do as a sign for why."

He added that the latest numbers highlight a "mixed story" in terms of economic progress for Americans. About 39.7 million people were in poverty in 2017.

"If you look at unemployment and overall wages, those have been improving over the last few years, and as a result poverty has been dropping," Rank said. "But the reach of poverty remains pretty wide, and half of Americans will experience some type of it. If we compare ourselves to other industrialized countries, then we still have a very high amount."

Census-compiled income, poverty and health insurance rates are used to gauge the economic well-being of the nation and remain tools for lawmakers in deciding policy.

The median household income in 2017 crossed the $61,000 mark for the first time, but because the Census Bureau redesigned its methodology in 2013, officials said last year's apparent record high figure is not statistically different from 1999 or 2007.

The overall economy has also strengthened in the decade since the Great Recession, which lasted from December 2007 to June 2009 and saw the shedding of millions of full-time jobs and stagnation of American workers' wages.

This year, the national unemployment rate has hovered around an 18-year low, and was at 3.9 percent in August.

"I'm disappointed — I thought we'd see higher gains" for 2017, said H. Luke Shaefer, the director of Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan.

He said the numbers show a lack of robust income improvement for both men and women with full-time, year-round jobs, which suggests that those who are entering the labor force recently could be clocking in more hours to boost incomes. (The Census Bureau also counts Social Security, financial investments, bonuses as forms of income.)

"When the economy is improving, you should be seeing some real wage gain, not remaining flat for those working full-time," Shaefer said.

Still, Shaefer said, the Obama administration helped to put in place policies that cushioned the blow of the financial markets' collapse, including a stimulus package and the extension of unemployment insurance. The economy overall has improved since 2014, when the median household income was $54,398, according to the census.

Economists say they're concerned that plans under the Trump administration to scale back anti-poverty programs or implement rule changes for families seeking help would create more hardships in the coming years.

But the effects of the administration's sweeping tax bill in late 2017 was lauded by Republicans as a way to boost business and help wages rise. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R- Wis., said a typical family would see a $2,059 tax cut this year.

Shaefer said it's still too early to tell what kind of effect tax cuts will have on workers' wages.

"We had a really bad recession and now we're having a really long recovery," he added. "We reached down to the bottom, and now we're finally seeing a turn around."