The poverty rate dropped consistently every year from 2015 to 2017 — a total of 2.5 percentage points — to a rate of 12.3 percent in 2017.
The data come from the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement (CPS ASEC). This three-year run of declines in poverty reflects the longest stretch of annual declines in the poverty rate since the four-year period of 1997 to 2000.
Poverty Rates Have Fluctuated Greatly Since 1970
When the poverty measure was first established in 1959, 22.4 percent of individuals were living in poverty.
In the first 10 years of the measure, from 1959 to 1969, poverty seemed to move in one direction — downward — falling 10.3 percentage points in that 10-year period.
However, sustained, long-term progress in lowering poverty rates has been more difficult in subsequent years.
Even after recent declines, the 2017 poverty rate of 12.3 percent is not statistically different from the rate in 1970. Since 1970, the annual poverty rate has increased 14 times and decreased 17 times.
Year-to-year increases in poverty in the 14 years when the rate went up tended to be higher, an average of 0.8 percentage points. In contrast, the average annual drop in the 17 years when poverty declined was 0.6 percentage points.
Ashley Edwards is Chief of the Poverty Statistics Branch at the U.S. Census Bureau.