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US Needs to Address Economic Hardship, Rights Impacts of Covid-19

Census Bureau Data Underscores Vulnerability of People in Poverty

A restaurant employee with her son leaves with her paycheck, in Brooklyn, New York, March 19, 2020. The restaurant company, which has closed its four locations due to the coronavirus, laid off 650 of 850 employees.  © 2020 AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

The United States Census Bureau released the results of its annual American Community Survey (ACS) last week. The survey provides US data on poverty, income inequality, health, and a range of other topics for 2019, prior to the pandemic. Despite some positive trends, the survey also shows that significant segments of the population were living in poverty and lacked health insurance. And more recent data from the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey suggests the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened these problems, raising serious concerns about their impact on rights.

On the positive side, the ACS found 2019 had a record-low unemployment rate of 3.5 percent, an increase in the median household income, and that people living in poverty declined to 10.5 percent, down 1.3 percentage points from 2018.

However, the Gini index, a key that measures income inequality, remained high at 0.48, well above the United Nations’ international alert line of 0.4. The top fifth of earners received 51.9 percent of income, more than all others combined, suggesting that the economy’s financial benefits skewed towards higher-wage earners. And despite a decline in poverty, many individuals and families were economically vulnerable, with 34 million people living in poverty, often unable to have an adequate standard of living.

The ACS also reveals one million fewer people had health insurance in 2019 than the previous year. The uninsured rate was highest among those in poverty, with almost a quarter uninsured. The pandemic has exacerbated this trend, with a record-breaking increase in uninsured people. Those relying on employer-provided insurance were also hit hard by Covid-19 related job losses, especially among lower-paid workers, with approximately 5.4 million workers losing insurance coverage between February and May. Federal support provided assistance primarily for Covid-19 testing but failed ensure comprehensive health coverage.

The CARES Act, passed in March, stemmed a rise in poverty levels early on, but many of those protections have expired and Congress has yet to provide further relief against deepening poverty and inequality. September data from the Pulse Survey shows more than half of all US households, especially those with lower incomes, have difficulties paying expenses. About a third of those with difficulties reported using credit cards or loans, or money from savings or selling assets to meet spending needs.

The US government’s response to Covid-19 has failed to focus on the rights of the country’s most economically vulnerable people, worsening the fallout from the pandemic in ways that could have been prevented. Congress should extend unemployment benefits through the crisis and to informal and undocumented workers, ensure comprehensive health coverage, and implement universal social programs such as paid family and medical leave for all.

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