COVID made Long-Term Struggles Worse — But Congress Prevented Poverty for Millions, and Must Act Now to Sustain Major Progress 


September 14, 2021

 Editor’s note: The following statement was released by Deborah Weinstein, Executive Director of the Coalition on Human Needs: 

“Poverty declined from 2019 to 2020 despite soaring unemployment. Here’s why: Congress’ actions to provide COVID relief lifted millions of people out of poverty.  The “stimulus” (Economic Impact) payments helped nearly 11.7 million people out of poverty.  Expanded unemployment insurance lifted 5.5 million out of poverty.  The stimulus payments were new; the expanded unemployment insurance lifted ten times the number of people out of poverty as in 2019 (524,000 were helped in that year).  This is powerful evidence that federal actions can provide essential help when people need it most.  We know from other surveys and from the ongoing pandemic that people are still in need.  There is more that Congress must do.  

“The Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) is a more useful estimate of poverty than the official poverty figures because it more accurately assesses income sources and expenditures. The Supplemental Poverty Measure declined from 11.8 percent in 2019 to 9.1 percent in 2020.  The official poverty measure shows over 37 million people in poverty in 2020, while the SPM estimates just under 30 million were poor last year.  The SPM is lower precisely because it counts federal supports not included in the official measure.    

“The hardships caused by the pandemic – and the help from federal programs – show up clearly in nutrition assistance.  School lunch programs lifted 582,000 children out of poverty in 2019, before COVID. But in 2020, only 157,000 children rose out of poverty because of school lunches; lockdowns kept children out of school, and efforts to deliver school meals to children did not provide an adequate substitute.  SNAP (formerly food stamps) did better for all age groups, with those lifted out of poverty rising from 2.6 million in 2019 to 2.9 million in 2020.   

“Other survey data with findings from this year show two important realities: (1) large numbers of people, especially those living with children and people of color, have experienced hardship in paying for necessities, before and during the pandemic; and (2) the official poverty measure is so low that millions of families with incomes above that line struggle to make ends meet. 

“During 2020, when the official child poverty measure was 16.1 percent and the SPM (taking benefits into account) was 9.7 percent, about 13 million adults living with children (about 14 percent) repeatedly reported their households sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the previous week. These findings, compiled in frequent Household Pulse surveys conducted by the Census Bureau, found that close to one in five Latinx adults living with children and one in four Black adults with children faced such hardship.  In August of this year, despite a considerable decline in unemployment, still about 12 percent of adults with children reported not having enough to eat. 

“The Household Pulse survey data for this past August also still finds more than one in four of adults (27 percent) saying that they are finding it somewhat or very difficult to pay regular household bills, and 14 percent are behind in rent.   

“Whether from 2020 or 2021, the various surveys show terrible disparities for people of color and for children.  Using the 2020 Supplemental Poverty Measure, Black and Hispanic poverty exceeded 14 percent, while non-Hispanic White poverty was 6.5 percent.  While child poverty is much lower using the SPM than the official poverty measure, 9.7 percent of children were poor, higher than the 9.1 percent of all people in poverty. 

“Congress can make long-lasting progress if it enacts the Build Back Better budget supported by President Biden and Congressional leadership.  The expanded Child Tax Credit, which did not take effect until 2021, is providing demonstrably swift and far-reaching assistance. After just one monthly allotment of between $250 – $300 per child, the number of adults living with children reporting that their households did not have enough to eat in the past week dropped steeply, by 3.3 million or nearly one-third.  The Columbia University Center on Poverty and Social Policy has estimated that the CTC’s expansion will cut child poverty by about 40 percent.  Providing children with better nutrition and greater stability by enabling families to pay bills more easily has been proven to improve their health, development, schooling, and future economic success. 

“We cannot sustain economic progress unless all our people are healthy, with the income needed to pay for necessities.  It is troubling that the number of uninsured rose from 26 million in 2019 to nearly 28 million in 2020, and that 60 million people said they were having trouble paying for usual household expenses in 2020.  Congress should enact the Build Back Better budget bill, to continue the progress made so far in lifting people out of poverty and helping to  increase earnings.” 

The Coalition on Human Needs has published “First Look at Poverty, Hardship and Health Insurance 2021,” which summarizes key findings from government sources. 

The Coalition on Human Needs (CHN) is an alliance of national organizations working together to promote public policies which address the needs of people with low incomes and other vulnerable populations. The Coalition’s members include civil rights, religious, labor, and professional organizations, service providers and those concerned with the well-being of children, women, the elderly, and people with disabilities.