Trump team succeeds in freezing progress on health insurance enrollment, poverty

The federal government's official measures of economic hardship continue to be woefully inadequate.

An Atlantic City, NJ resident walks through an impoverished neighborhood. CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images
An Atlantic City, NJ resident walks through an impoverished neighborhood. CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images

Years of progress on health insurance enrollment halted abruptly in 2017 as Trump administration officials intentionally unplugged the policy machines that pushed the uninsured rate below 10 percent over the previous half-decade.

New Census Bureau figures on poverty released Wednesday show the uninsured rate held steady at 8.8 percent last year, marking the first failure to improve enrollment levels since at least 2013. Changes to Census data collection that year make comparisons to earlier windows impossible, but the uninsured rate had fallen from 13.3 percent to its current level from 2013 to 2016.

Though the national rate was unchanged, uninsured populations grew in 14 states. Some 28.5 million people lack coverage for health care nationwide.

White House officials chose this. The Trump team has stopped trying to enroll uninsured people, yanking funding for outreach and marketing programs tied to Obamacare. The administration’s efforts to generate a climate of fear for immigrants nationwide has likely also contributed to the stalled progress on health care access, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, because an unknown number of law-abiding non-citizen residents eligible for Medicaid are reluctant to access the program.


The new Census figures reveal a “moral failure” in the world’s richest country, Rev. William Barber told reporters on a conference call organized by the Poor People’s Campaign Wednesday.

“The poor are not lazy people or black people or Latino people, the poor are all Americans, from Appalachia to Alabama, from white, black, Latino, Asian communities,” Barber said. “There are over 62 million people who make less than a living wage but work every day.”

The official poverty rate fell by 0.4 percentage points in the new report, to 12.3 percent. That translates to some 39.5 million people designated officially poor by the federal government.

The Census Bureau’s mode of calculating poverty underestimates the share of the population living on the economic fringe, however — a reality the government tacitly acknowledges by pegging access thresholds for most safety programs at incomes substantially above the federal poverty level. Different researchers have crafted various methods for more accurately calculating the impoverished population. The United Way’s ALICE Project estimates that more than 40 percent of the public works but still has too little to afford the basics even after factoring in the public assistance dollars they receive. The feds’ own attempt to better capture the reality of life at the margins, called the Supplemental Poverty Measures, found a poverty rate of 13.9 percent or 45 million people. The ALICE figure translates to 51 million households worth of people who can’t cover all of their bills each month.

The too-rosy official figures are based on an old methodology that doesn’t capture the real costs of living in the modern economy, ALICE Project director Stephanie Hoopes said. It looks at the cost of food and little else — certainly not 21st century working-folk essentials like a smartphone and the costs of childcare and transit to a job site.


“I’m very concerned about our government’s ability to understand what’s going on, that the economy and households are changing and our official measures are not. They’re really not able to capture what’s happening,” said Hoopes. “We’re not making a judgment on whether this is right or wrong, it’s just, these are the facts, these are the wages, this is what it costs. And if these workers lives are falling apart, we’re all going to suffer.”

Trump administration officials have nonetheless insisted that poverty is over in the United States, rejecting a United Nations report earlier this summer that found 40 million people living in poverty here — roughly the same figures Trump’s own Census Bureau just tallied on Wednesday. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley nonetheless decried the UN stats as bogus, and the State Department claimed that only a quarter-million Americans are really, truly poor.

That outright denial of a problem marks a new low in the long-running right-wing campaign to stifle concerns about poor people. For a time, the notion that anyone who’s got electronic appliances at home isn’t really poor was restricted to the conservative ideologues who haunt Washington policy circles and only occasionally embraced by elected Republicans. Now, the White House is declaring the War on Poverty won — and prepping to withdraw troops from it by further paring back safety net programs.

The reality, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Philip Alston said on the morning call with Barber, is quite different. Middle-income families are still far poorer today than they were before the Wall Street crash a decade ago, with net worths still 20 percent below their pre-crisis levels for white middle-class families and twice as far behind for black families in the same bracket.

“While the poverty stats are remaining pretty stable, what we’re seeing for the rest of the economy is this radical disconnect between the extremely wealthy and the middle-income group, which is suffering enormously,” Alston said. “You’ve got a very wealthy country doing extremely well right now and still there are 45 million people living in poverty, still there are close to 30 million people with no health insurance. The administration is moving to remove all these figures and replace them with a very rosy picture that there’s almost no poverty in this country, which of course doesn’t reflect reality.”


As in most other policy fields, the debate on class inequality, wage stagnation, surging rent, and the economic harm caused by leaving a vast serfdom out of the nation’s prosperity has lost traction with the press and public as Trump’s antics rewrite news appetites and attention spans. But the farther you get from the Beltway, Hoopes said, the more likely you are to find a continued keen interest and ambitious concern for the realities of working-class hardship.

“That’s definitely the case in DC. We talk to policymakers and the feedback is, ‘we have absolutely no money for this.’ But I’m a little more encouraged from the work in the field,” she said. “We have a lot of state agencies reaching out to us, much more of an appetite from non-profits and even from [employers]. Companies get it! There’s a lot of people that are working around the federal government.”