09/13/2012 05:14 pm ET Updated Nov 13, 2012

Shelter From the Storm

Reading the new U.S. Census report on income and poverty in 2011, released on Sept. 12, is a bit like turning on the weather report in the middle of a hurricane. We don't really need to look at our television to know that it's raining and windy, and we don't need to read the Census report to know that too many of our neighbors are struggling to get by. But the weather report also lets us know how the most vulnerable -- those on the unprotected coast -- are faring, and whether there are blue skies ahead or if the storms will linger. Likewise, the Census report provides an accounting of the number of people who are riding out the storm of poverty and anxiously awaiting forecasts of better economic conditions -- along with news of help.

The Census report confirms that 2011 was a tough year for the average American worker and family. We already knew that unemployment was lower in 2011 than in 2010. However, this report tells us that real median earnings for full-time, year-round workers fell by 2.5 percent. Putting it together, median household income declined by 1.5 percent from 2010 to 2011. Incomes at the top end started to grow a bit, which means that inequality rose. Poverty rates in 2011 were at about the same levels as 2010 -- 15 percent for all people, 21.8 percent for children under 18, with blacks and Hispanics facing poverty rates of more than twice the overall levels.

No one would rip the plywood off their windows or empty the sandbags in the midst of an intense storm. Similarly, the federal government should not reduce the strength of its safety net when there are so many families in need and truly benefiting from the support. That's because government programs really do help lessen the impact of poverty and get people back on their feet so they can become more self-sufficient.

One of the bright spots in the Census report -- and a great example of how government policy can work -- is the news that the number and share of people in the U.S. without health insurance coverage declined. This is likely due to both the Affordable Care Act's provision requiring health insurance companies to cover young adults on their parents' plans, and to increased public coverage. The report also showed that public supports like Unemployment Insurance, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) made a difference in millions of people's lives, and that hardship would have been much greater without them.

The election will set a long-term course for how government helps struggling families. But policymakers will also have a lot of work to do immediately after the election, when Congress comes back to work on unfinished business. Our lawmakers must steer clear of the looming cuts to the programs so many vulnerable families rely on for survival. Unfortunately, it's easy to forecast what will happen if they don't.