New data released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that 71,329 Vermonters lived below the federal poverty line in 2016 — roughly 10,000 more than in 2015. Vermont was the only state to see a statistically significant increase in its poverty rate, from 10.2 percent in 2015 to 11.9 percent in 2016.
But according to Ashley Edwards, chief of the Census Bureau's poverty statistics branch, the latest figures may represent a return to the norm, rather than a new trend. The state's 2016 poverty rate mirrors those from 2012 through 2014.
"If you look at the past five-year period, it actually looks like the 2015 period might be an outlier," Edwards said. "So although this reflects an increase, it's not statistically different than some of those earlier years."
Vermont continues to do better than most states. Only nine had lower poverty rates than Vermont in 2016, according to Edwards. Neighboring New Hampshire had the lowest, at 7.3 percent. Mississippi had the highest, at 20.8 percent.
In 2016, the federal poverty line was drawn at an annual income of $12,228 for an individual living alone and $24,339 for a family consisting of two adults and two children.
According to Edwards, the newly released Census data provide few clues as to what prompted the rise in poverty in 2016. The state's unemployment rate, average earnings and median income were largely unchanged.
Jack Hoffman, senior policy analyst at the Montpelier-based Public Assets Institute, said that while 2015 may have been an outlier, Vermont has seen a long-term increase in its poverty rate since before the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing recession. He speculated that that increase may have been driven by a stagnation in wages over the past decade.
"To the extent that there's an affordability crisis here, it's that people's incomes aren't growing fast enough to keep up with other things that are rising faster than inflation," Hoffman said.