Prosperity Watch (Issue 78, No. 3): Small gains in reducing poverty overshadowed by large-scale inequality

Sept. 25, 2017

Recent data released from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that 15.4 percent of North Carolinians lived in poverty in 2016, defined as a family of four making $24,600 a year or less. There are a few positive points to note regarding the latest data. At 15.4 percent, this marks the third straight year of meaningful reduction in the poverty rate sense the Great Recession began. Additionally, the state’s median income rose to $50,584, up $2,754 from last year, but still $1,130 less than before the recession began.

But despite the positive gains, far too many North Carolinians, 1.52 million to be exact, are still struggling to afford the basics. What is worse, is that not everyone is impacted by poverty equally. The Great Recession had a particularly harsh impact on communities of color. Systemic barriers--such as lack of access to quality education, housing segregation, and job and wage discrimination--prevented many Black and brown North Carolinians from enjoying the fruits of North Carolina’s pre-recession economy and continue to prevent those same groups from enjoying the benefits of the recovery.

As a result of these barriers, 23.5 percent of African Americans, 27.3 percent of Latinx families, 25.5 percent of Native Americans, and 11.9 percent of Asian Americans experienced poverty, compared to only 10.8 percent of whites last year. Additionally, women experienced poverty at a rate 2.5 percentage points higher than men, and 25 percent of women of color were in poverty compared to 11.9 percent of white women. And while the child poverty rate reduced from 23.5 percent in 2015 to 21.7 percent last year, children of color are experiencing poverty at rates much higher than their white counterparts. In 2016, 39 percent of African American children, 37.8 percent of American Indian children, and 37.2 percent of Hispanic and Latinx children were in poverty, compared to 12.4 percent of white children.

The new data also points to inequality in other parts of our economy. Last year, more than 51 percent of the state’s income went to the highest income North Carolinians, or households making more than $100,000 a year. Middle-income North Carolinians, on the other hand, accounted for only a quarter of the state’s income.

Despite slight improvements, poverty continues to be a serious issue that plagues North Carolina. Last year we ranked 13th and 15th worst of all states in poverty and child poverty, respectively. 

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