The number of Americans living in poverty fell in 1994 for the first time in five years, the Commerce Department said Thursday in a report that suggested the national recovery is belatedly reaching those struggling at the bottom of the economic ladder.
The poverty rate also declined, from 15.1% in 1993 to 14.5% in 1994, according to the statistical snapshot, which provided the Clinton Administration with some encouraging news about the status of have-nots during its economic stewardship.
"I think this is good news--absolutely," said Rebecca Blank, a Northwestern University economist who specializes in poverty research. "It's very reassuring to see in the third year of the expansion the poverty numbers turning around. It's about time."
At the same time, the news was less upbeat on household incomes, which were generally stagnant at levels remaining below a peak of five years earlier.
California was one of three states where median household incomes actually fell--2.1%--measured over the two-year period ending in 1994, apparently reflecting the state's lengthy economic troubles. The other states with household income declines deemed significant were Kansas with 6% and New Hampshire with 8%. California's 1994 poverty rate of 17.9% was essentially unchanged from the year before.
Overall, 38.1 million Americans were living in poverty last year, 1.2 million fewer than in 1993. The government defines poverty as an annual income of $15,141 or less for a family of four in 1994.
The outpouring of statistics Thursday gave new ammunition both to the White House, which would like to get more credit for the benefits of the economic recovery, and Republican critics, who wish to make the economy's performance an election-year issue.
Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, concluded that the overall tone of the report is positive. "It definitely shows there was an improvement in the standard of living last year--whatever the naysaying of the public or the disappointment of the public," he said.
A possible source of that disappointment is the stagnation of median household incomes, which remained at $32,264. That is well below the 1989 peak of $34,445, a fact that Administration critics quickly seized on Thursday.
"Today's data reinforce the need to pass the Republican tax-and-spending-cut plan--policies that will promote robust rather than anemic growth," said Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), chairman of Congress' Joint Economic Committee.
The report, based on a Census Bureau survey of 60,000 households, comes as Congress and the White House are jousting over key policies concerning support for the needy, from Medicaid to the earned income tax credit for the working poor.
Among the findings:
* Family households enjoyed income gains of 2.5%, while incomes slipped 2.1% for non-family households, which are composed of unrelated people living under one roof. Households led by single women had their first real income gains since 1987, from $19,020 to $19,872.
* Poverty rates fell for whites--from 12.2% in 1993 to 11.7% in 1994--and blacks--from 33.1% to 30.6%. But poverty rates stayed the same for Latinos--30.7%--as well as for Asians and Pacific Islanders--14.6%.
* African Americans were the only racial group to experience real, inflation-adjusted gains in median household income, which rose from $20,032 to $21,027.
* Children continued to suffer the highest poverty rates, although the trend seemed to ease, with the rate declining from 22.7% to 21.8% for the under-18 age group.
* The South, historically the worst regional performer in most measures of poverty and income, last year had company at the bottom--the West.