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Americans are earning more — but that isn’t the only good news in the new census data

Barack Obama smiling

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A new census report released this week had some great news for the average worker. Headlines mostly focused on the jump in median wages — a 5.2 percent increase from 2014 to 2015, the largest the agency has ever seen.

This is undeniably good news. But some other good news didn’t get as much attention — namely, that the uninsured rate is at an all-time low.

Census Bureau

The Census Bureau estimates that 9.1 percent of Americans lacked health insurance in 2015, the lowest number the agency has ever recorded. This was a 1.3 percentage point decline in the uninsured rate from 2014.

The steepest declines in the uninsured rate were among low-income Americans. Households that earn less than $25,000 a year saw a 1.7 percentage point decline in their uninsured rate — more than double the decline of 0.8 percentage points for households that earn more than $100,000.

Census data on household wages doesn’t include the value of nonmonetary income. So anything from enrolling in food stamps to receiving a car as a job perk doesn’t show up as sources of income, even though they clearly provide financial benefit to a household. (Dylan Matthews has written more extensively on why this makes the census measure of poverty a bad one.)

So this means that there are two positive things happening at the same time: Median wages are increasing and more people are gaining health insurance coverage.

We often think of health insurance’s main function as increasing access to health care. But it also plays an important role in providing financial security, too. Medical bills have long been a leading cause of bankruptcy in the United States. One landmark study of Oregon’s Medicaid expansion shows that those who gain access to health insurance face less medical debt. A more recent economic working paper estimates that gaining coverage through the health law’s Medicaid expansion is associated with a $600 to $1,000 reduction in credit card debt.

So the good news in the census report is, arguably, twofold: Americans are making more money and getting more financial protection against their medical bills. And taken together, that’s a really big deal.

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