(RNS) — The Census Bureau just released the results of its annual survey of poverty in America. Together with the results for the past three years, these new numbers tell a surprising story — effective action by Congress during the pandemic followed by a hasty retreat from helping struggling families made for a clear demonstration that dramatically reducing poverty is feasible, if we choose to do it.
When the economy shut down in the first months of the pandemic, 10 million people suddenly lost their jobs. There were long lines at food banks across the country. We had every reason to expect a long surge in poverty. That’s what happened after the financial crisis of 2008. It also happened during the pandemic in many countries where governments have less financial capacity to protect their people.
But the U.S. Congress quickly responded to COVID on our behalf with the $2 trillion CARES Act. Republicans mainly wanted to keep businesses open and people employed, while Democrats insisted on immediate income assistance to all people of modest means and an increase in unemployment benefits. The two parties agreed to combine strategies. The unemployment rate declined, and the poverty rate (using the official measure of poverty that includes all government benefits) also declined.
Congress followed up with a series of blockbuster bills, mostly on a bipartisan basis (despite a lot of contentious debate). COVID killed 1.1 million Americans and caused real hardship for almost everybody. But the economy and job market stayed strong, low-wage workers experienced fast wage growth, and expanded assistance programs protected vulnerable groups.
The American Rescue Act during President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office in 2021 was singularly focused on help for vulnerable groups. Notably, it made the child tax credit fully available to low-income families. The American Rescue Act squeaked through the Senate with a one-vote margin.
The expanded child tax credit, alongside the other relief measures, had a dramatic impact on child poverty. Child poverty dropped from 10% of all children to just 5%, the lowest level in U.S. history. Evaluative studies found that parents who received support from the expanded child tax credit generally continued working and used the extra money for family needs.
But in December 2021, the Senate decided — again by one vote — to end the expanded child tax credit. Child poverty surged the next month.
During 2022 and early 2023, Congress also ended other pandemic assistance programs, such as rental assistance, expanded food assistance and expanded Medicaid. The effect of ending the pandemic relief measures could not be clearer in the newly released census numbers. Despite unusually strong job growth, the percentage of people in poverty bounced back up in 2022 to roughly what it was in 2019 before the pandemic began. This has been the biggest year-to-year increase in poverty in more than 50 years.
As a nation, we decided to return 15 million people, including 5 million children, to income levels too low to meet their basic needs. Charities across the country have been swamped by wave after wave of increasing need as pandemic assistance programs have ended.
The decline and rise of U.S. poverty over the last four years is a heartbreaking story, but we can also draw a hopeful lesson from it. Our recent experience has demonstrated that the persistence of high levels of poverty is a political choice. If we organize the necessary give-a-damn, we can dramatically reduce — perhaps virtually end — poverty in America.
This would make our communities healthier and less violent. Millions of our children would be able to do better in school and in life.
Some people are arguing that we should instead reduce assistance to people struggling with poverty in order to curtail deficit spending and inflation. But Congress could cut spending without cutting poverty-important programs. They could also reduce deficit spending by raising more revenue from corporations and high-income people — not by taking away food, housing and income assistance from families, children and workers struggling to make ends meet.
I’m a preacher, so I feel compelled to note that a less severely unequal society with fewer people in poverty would be more consistent with God’s love for all people.
(David Beckmann is coordinator of the Circle of Protection, an advocacy coalition of church bodies and ministries that include 100 million people. He is both an economist and a pastor. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)