Poverty in US reduced thanks to government aid, Census report shows
Last year the coronavirus pandemic put millions out of work and set off the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression. Yet last year the share of people living in poverty in the United States actually declined by at least one measure because of the government’s massive relief efforts.
About 9.1 percent of Americans were poor last year, as the Census Bureau reported Tuesday, down from 11.8 percent in 2019. It is based on a measure of poverty that accounts for the impact of government aid programs, which pulled millions out last year. Poverty. The government’s official measure, which excludes some key aid programs, rose to 11.4 percent from a record 10.5 percent in 2019.
The fact that poverty did not increase much during such a major economic disruption reflects an equally overwhelming response from the government. Congress expanded unemployment benefits and food aid, gave hundreds of billions of dollars to small businesses and sent checks directly to most American households. The Census Bureau estimated that direct screening alone lifted 11.7 million people out of poverty last year, and unemployment benefits prevented 5.5 million people from falling into poverty.
“Despite the pandemic, unemployment, recession, poverty did not rise,” said Irwin Garfinkel, co-director of the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University School of Social Work, referring to the alternative measure. “If it were not for government benefit, poverty would have skyrocketed.”
Poverty rose much more rapidly after the last recession, peaking at 15.1 percent in 2010 and then gradually improving.
Still, government aid programs excluded some groups, such as undocumented immigrants and their families, and failed to reach others. Millions faced delays of weeks or months before receiving benefits, forcing many to seek help from food banks or other charities.
“We measure poverty annually when the reality of poverty is faced on a day-to-day basis,” said Hilary Hoynes, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied the government’s response to the pandemic. .
Many programs that helped save people out of poverty have ended in the past year, even as the pandemic continues. An estimated 7.5 million people lost unemployment benefits this month after Congress allowed the pandemic-era expansion of the program to end.
The new data could feed into efforts by President Biden and congressional leaders to implement a more permanent expansion of the safety net. Democrats’ $3.5 trillion plan, which is still taking shape, could include paid family and medical leave, government-backed child care and a permanent expansion of the child tax credit. Liberals said the success of relief programs last year showed that such policies should be continued and expanded.
“It tells us it takes work to grow up,” said Arloc Sherman, a poverty researcher at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive research group. “We all had the answer. These policies are extremely effective when they are actually used.”
But many conservatives argue that although some expansion of government aid during the pandemic was justified, those programs should be curtailed once the economy recovers.
“We need to balance concerns about poverty, which is the lowest, with concerns about federal debt,” said Scott Winship, a senior fellow and director of poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative group.
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