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International Trends Affect US Income Levels

New census figures indicate that average household incomes in the United States are rising. But the country's poverty level remains unchanged and the number of Americans without health insurance is at a record high. VOA's Peter Fedynsky reports on the uneven influence certain international trends are having on American well-being.

New data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that average American household income exceeds $46,000 a year -- an $11,000 increase since 1967. Poverty levels over the same period have fluctuated, but remain virtually unchanged since 2001. Currently, 12.6 percent of the population -- about 37 million Americans -- are considered poor.

David Johnson of the U.S. Census Bureau says nearly 47 million Americans have no health insurance. "The percentage of people covered by employment-based insurance decreased from 59.8 percent to 59.5 percent in 2005 and the percentage of people with privately purchased plans also declined. The increase in the overall uninsured rate can be attributed to these two declines."

On average, men earn more than women in the United States. Asian-Americans earn more than whites, followed by African-Americans and Hispanics. The wealthiest counties in the United States are in the Washington, D.C area. The poorest are in Texas along the Mexican border.

Nonetheless, economist Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, D.C. notes that Latin American immigrants continue to stream into the United States.

"They move to the United States, even if it brings them to a position where they are below the poverty line in the United States. Still, for those families [it] represents a tremendous improvement in their well-being. It's a huge engine for progress in real incomes of these people."

Despite such improvement, low immigrant wages depress the overall U.S. income average.

Census data also indicate a growing disparity between incomes of Americans at the top and bottom quintiles, or 20 percent, of the population. David Johnson of the Census Bureau explains. "The income for households in the top quintile represents about half of the total income for the nation, while income for those households at the bottom quintile accounts for only 3.4 percent."

Brookings Institution economist Gary Burtless says the growing wage gap between poor and wealthy Americans can be attributed in part to globalization and the outsourcing of U.S. jobs overseas. He says this is shifting more of the national income from workers to employers.

"The availability of alternative places to produce things -- both goods and services in other countries, where wages are much lower, benefits are much less costly -- does increase the bargaining power of employers compared with workers," says Burtless.

Politicians in both major U.S. political parties claim the statistics support their economic policies. Democrats say the census report confirms that most working families are not moving ahead financially. Republicans say the figures indicate low unemployment, rising wages and more American jobs than ever before.