Census: Low-Income People Still Lack Access to Health Care

If we are truly committed to communities of color, it is imperative that reproductive health and justice communities work to expand access to health care for low-income people. 

New Census data was released last week on poverty and health insurance coverage in 2011. These numbers highlight the importance of programs that assist low-income Latinas, and of the benefits to them of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The recession has hit Latinos hard, and many are struggling financially. The data revealed Latinos to be the only racial or ethnic group for whom poverty actually declined. Nonetheless, Latinos are still the second-poorest demographic group in the nation, with 25.3 percent living in poverty in 2011, compared to 9.8 percent for white folks. The Census defines poverty by using the Federal Poverty Guidelines. Anyone below 100 percent of the poverty threshold—about $23,000 for a family of four, or about $11,000 for an individual—is counted as poor, and anyone above that is not, even though many people struggle financially on much more than this. A staggering 41.5 percent of Latinos live at or below 150 percent of the poverty line. 

Latinos also represent the demographic group with the greatest numbers of uninsured persons, with 30 percent lacking coverage in 2011. But it is not all bad news: The number of young people without any kind of health coverage in 2011 declined by 2.2 percent, and the number of people in general with insurance went up by 3.6 million. These gains can probably be attributed to increased coverage under the ACA, most particularly protections for those with pre-existing conditions and the provisions ensuring that young people can stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26.

The gains in coverage also highlight the importance of our advocacy around ACA implementation—these expansions are truly making a difference in millions of people’s lives. But we still have a long way to go. With so many Latinos and people of color living at or close to poverty, the ACA’s provision to expand Medicaid to 133 percent of the poverty level will be critical to expanding health care coverage to communities of color. Unfortunately, a number of governors—including some in states with high concentrations of Latinos, like Texas and Florida—have claimed that they will refuse to expand Medicaid, even though the Federal government will pick up most of the cost.

Unfortunately, the Affordable Care Act leaves many behind, most notably immigrants. The data from 2011 show that 33 percent of immigrants have no health insurance, and many will be ineligible for the benefits of the ACA due to their immigration status. In fact, undocumented immigrants are not allowed to purchase coverage from the exchanges even with their own private funds.

Finally, the data reveal the importance of public benefit programs in keeping people out of poverty. Benefits such as SNAP, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and unemployment insurance assisted millions out of federally-defined poverty, but these programs are at risk. With Congress voting to cut SNAP benefits and the coming end of expansions to tax credits and unemployment insurance, it is imperative that reproductive health and justice advocates pay attention to economic justice issues. While the data showed no rise in poverty from 2010 to 2011, it did show a rise in inequality—the poor became poorer, and the wealthy became wealthier still. It is unacceptable to cut benefits that are helping the poor—who are disproportionately Latinos and people of color – and refuse to increase taxes on the wealthy as we see this kind of rise in income inequality.

If we are truly committed to communities of color, it is imperative that reproductive health and justice communities work to expand access to health care for low-income people. This means fighting to make sure that all states expand Medicaid, demanding that the poor do not continue to pay for budget shortfalls as the wealthy continue to get wealthier, and centering the voices of immigrant youth and women in our efforts to expand access to care. We’ve got the facts behind us – let’s demand what our communities deserve.