The United States Census Bureau recently reported that poverty fall especially in 2021. Amid a pandemic and widespread economic hardship, this is a significant achievement.
There are three lessons here — about government programs, how we measure poverty, and how far we still have to go.
First, these figures show that government programs work. After Social Security, refundable tax credits like the expanded Child Tax Credit (CTC) and stimulus payments have been the biggest contributors to poverty reduction.
Without them, over 20 million more people would have been poor last year. The expanded CTC alone raised millions of children above the poverty line and reduces racial inequalities among poor children.
These programs worked because they deviated significantly from the way anti-poverty programs have operated over the past 30 years. They provided direct cash transfers to beneficiaries, without any labor requirements or bureaucratic indignities.
Social rights organizers have been calling for these changes for decades. This year, they were right.
But unfortunately, official federal poverty numbers still hide the true number of people in need and underestimate the extent of our responsibility to help them.
At just $31,000 for a family of four, the federal government’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, or SPM, is far too low. This is less than half the typical cost of living for a family that size in rural Mississippi, or just a third for Chicago. And the official measure of poverty, or OPM, is even lower.
I’m the political director of the Poor People’s Campaign, which defines poverty as including anyone living up to 200% PMS.
Using this measure, which is still lower than the median income, we counted 140 million people– or 43% of the country – who were poor or close to being poor before the pandemic. In 2021, this rate has dropped to around 34%, or 112 million people.
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This is a significant decrease. But that means more than a third of our nation has little to celebrate.
In fact, the population living between 100% and 200% of the MPS threshold has remained roughly the same between 2020 and 2021: almost 90 million people, at an emergency of poverty. If we only looked at the poverty rate, we would have completely missed them.
It means we can and must do more. The expanded CTC expired in December 2021, and there has been no further discussion of reviving stimulus payments, even with the federal minimum wage at its peak. lowest value in 66 years and the cost of living continues to rise.
This is not to minimize the gains we have made. They simply remind us that poverty is a political choice – and fortunately we can make different choices.
In 2020, there were over 80 million people eligible poor and low-income voters. Fifty million of them voted in the presidential race, representing one-third of the overall electorate and even higher percentages in key states in the Midwest and South.
These voters share a common interest in ensuring health care, decent wages, decent housing and safe schools for their children. If they could be organized to act together – across race, religion and other dividing lines – we could advance the moral policies we need to fully fight poverty.
“What hurts me in Kentucky hurts you in Alabama, West Virginia and across the country,” Tayna Fogle, a leader with the Kentucky Poor People’s Campaign, said earlier this year.
“Can you imagine all the poor and low-income people going to the polls? she asked. “What if we did everything we could to make sure our vote counted? We could turn this madness around.”
If the poor vote midterm like they did in 2020, we could be another step closer to ending the madness of widespread poverty amid plenty.