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Median household income increased 6.8% last year to $68,703, according to new Census data

Income was surging for U.S. households while the national poverty rate fell in 2019, indicating the finances of many Americans were improving before the COVID-19 pandemic upended the U.S. economy and threw millions out of work.

Median, inflation-adjusted household income increased 6.8% last year to $68,703 -- among the fastest gains on record -- as more Americans got jobs and wages rose, according to annual data released Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau. The poverty rate fell by 1.3 percentage point to 10.5%, the lowest in data back to 1959 and the fifth straight decline.

The data help flesh out the picture of American families' economic health during times when the jobless rate hovered near a half-century low of 3.5%. Since then, the pandemic put tens of millions out of work and exacerbated existing inequalities, with lower-wage workers at places such as hotels and restaurants facing the brunt of job losses.

The government's stimulus checks and extra $600 a week in jobless benefits helped soften the blow, supporting incomes and spending amid widespread unemployment. As a result of this assistance, researchers found poverty actually declined in the April-June period compared to the pre-pandemic January-February period.

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But that government assistance proved to be temporary -- with the supplemental jobless benefits expiring in July -- and lawmakers are at a standstill over another stimulus package. The same researchers also found poverty rose by a full percentage point for July and August compared with April to June.

The Supplemental Poverty Measure, a figure that takes into account many government-assistance programs, fell to 11.7% in 2019, the lowest since estimates were initially published for 2009 but higher than the official poverty rate. However, the number of people in poverty would have been 7.7 million higher after subtracting medical expenses from income.

Income gains spanned demographic groups, though disparities remained wide. In 2019, the real median incomes of non-Hispanic White households increased 5.7% to $76,057, while Black households climbed 7.9% to $45,438 and Hispanic households rose 7.1% to $56,113. Asian households recorded a 10.6% increase, to $98,174.

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Rural America didn't share in as much of the gains, though. Households outside metropolitan statistical areas saw income rise 2.6% in 2019, an increase deemed not statistically significant, according to the report. Their median income was just $52,100, compared with $71,961 for families inside metro areas, who saw a 6.8% rise.

The female-to male earnings ratio as well as the Gini index, a measure of income inequality, were not statistically different from the prior year, according to Census.

Tuesday's report also showed the share of Americans without health insurance amounted to 8%, or 26.1 million people, in 2019.

However, the Census Bureau suggested using a separate measure this year when comparing with prior years, given the pandemic's impact on the survey. In 2019, 9.2% of Americans, or 29.6 million, were not covered by health insurance at the time of interview, an increase from 8.9% in 2018.

There were other divides in the data. Women were still more likely to live in poverty -- 11.5%, compared with 9.4% of men. The share of single-female households in poverty improved from the prior year but remains very high at 22.2%, more than double the national level.

Data by race showed further divides, with 7.3% of non-Hispanic Whites in poverty compared with 18.8% for Black Americans, and 7.3% for Asians. The rate for Hispanic Americans was 15.7%.

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The Census Bureau considers a two-parent, two-child household with less than $25,926 in income to be living in poverty; the measure differs by size of household.

The quality of the latest income data may have been impacted by the pandemic. While the data are for 2019, they was collected between February and April of this year, a time frame that coincided with the start of business closures and stay-at-home orders in the U.S. Response rates were lower than usual -- falling below 80% -- in part because survey-takers didn't visit respondents in person, the bureau said.

While the Labor Department’s monthly employment reports and the Commerce Department’s monthly personal income reports offer more timely insights into earnings, the annual Census data give a more comprehensive view of household incomes.