By Steve Spires
New figures released Wednesday by the U.S. Census Bureau show that more Louisianans are living in poverty and the percentage of people with health coverage continues to decline. The data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS) indicates that more than one in five Louisianans lived below the poverty line last year (defined as annual income of $11,170 for an individual or $19,090 for a family of three).
Nationally, the poverty rate in 2011 was 15 percent—essentially unchanged from 2010—even as poverty increased in a number of states, including Louisiana.
It is important to note that the state-level data is preliminary. More detailed figures on poverty, health insurance coverage and median income will be available next week when the Census Bureau releases the 2011 American Community Survey (ACS). But the initial data contains troubling signs for Louisiana families and children.
On health coverage, the numbers show that Louisiana is moving in the wrong direction, with the share of residents who lack health insurance increasing over last year. One in four non-elderly adults in Louisiana already lacks health insurance.
Nationally, the share of people without health insurance decreased for the first time in four years. This is mainly thanks to a provision in the federal Affordable Care Act that allows young adults to stay on their parents’ health insurance plan until age 26. While young adults in Louisiana were certainly helped by this change, it was overshadowed by a continuing decline in the share of Louisianans who get health insurance through their employer.
Fortunately, the share of children with health insurance appears to have held steady, mainly because gains in Medicaid coverage protected more children from becoming uninsured.
In 2014, Louisiana will have an opportunity to extend Medicaid coverage to low-income adults as part of the federal health care reform law. With Medicaid expansion, the share of uninsured Louisianans could drop by more than half. Unfortunately, Gov. Bobby Jindal currently opposes the expansion, despite the fact that 93 percent of the cost over the first 10 years will be covered by the federal government.
Today’s poverty data emphasizes the importance of taking a balanced approach to Louisiana’s fiscal crisis. Since the start of the Great Recession, the need for services has increased as the unemployment rate has climbed. Family breadwinners have lost jobs, income has stagnated and health insurance coverage is deteriorating. Yet severe budget cuts have undermined the state’s ability to invest in health care, education, infrastructure and job training—the building blocks of a strong, 21st century economy.
As state policymakers consider ways to reform Louisiana’s tax system, they must protect tax credits like the state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) that offer working families the support they need. Most importantly, any changes to the tax code should be crafted in a way that raises the revenue that Louisiana needs to invest in a prosperous future.