The U.S. Census Bureau announced this month that child poverty more than doubled from 2021 to 2022, with the share of children living in households unable to meet basic needs rising from 5.2% to 12.4%. Child poverty rates have hit record lows for three consecutive years starting in 2019, a record that has now been broken in dramatic fashion. But there is a silver lining: The country has the strongest evidence yet on which policies are effective in reducing child poverty, and how quickly poverty can rise again after they end.
If the United States is to return to record-low child poverty rates, policymakers should learn three lessons in particular.
First, Congress must acknowledge which policies led to a sharp decline in child poverty in 2021 and a subsequent rebound in 2022. The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 introduces a range of income supports, but the most important of them is the expanded Child Tax Credit (CTC), which puts direct cash payments into the pockets of nearly every family with children, regardless of parent’s What is the employment status? The impact of the CTC has been far-reaching. It not only contributed significantly to the record low child poverty rate in 2021, but also reduced the monthly child poverty rate by about one-third, temporarily bringing the U.S. child poverty rate on par with Germany and allowing the U.S. welfare state to reduce child poverty At the rate in Norway, it reduces food hardship for families with children by about a fifth, has no meaningful short-term impact on employment, and increases low-income families’ spending at childcare centers and grocery stores.
Expanded unemployment benefits and stimulus checks will also help lower poverty rates in 2021, but the CTC’s greatest effort is to improve the ability of families with children to meet their basic needs on a regular basis. Additionally, the expiration of the expanded CTC and other COVID-19 income supports in 2022 has contributed more to rising poverty than inflation, and child poverty rates have risen sharply despite a significant decline in the unemployment rate from 2021 to 2022 .
A second lesson from recent years is the urgency and importance of reducing children’s poverty. Researchers have long documented the impact of childhood poverty on child development and socioeconomic outcomes in later life. But the brutality of lifelong poverty has never been more apparent than during the COVID-19 pandemic. As I document in my new book, Poverty in a pandemic: policy lessons from COVID-19American adults who experienced poverty as children face a different epidemic than the rest of the country. They were more than twice as likely as wealthier adults to be unemployed when the pandemic hit, and twice as likely to be victims of COVID-19. Meanwhile, learning losses in math are 50% higher for low-income children who receive distance education.
The disadvantages generated by child poverty further demonstrate that reducing disadvantage is not a single act but the result of ongoing policy choices that first target different risks of child poverty. A clear strategy to reduce childhood poverty is to provide unconditional payments to children to support the basic needs of children and families. Most rich countries offer some kind of child benefit like this; the United States generally does not, except for the expanded CTC benefit, which is paid monthly from July to December 2021.
Third, given the substantial costs of early poverty exposure and the ability of expanded CTCs to prevent such exposure, Congress should be willing to sacrifice existing social programs if politically necessary to find common ground on new CTC expansions.
Ideally, expanding the CTC would be achieved through cross-party negotiations on tax reform, rather than by displacing other social programs, as has been the case with modifications to refundable tax credits over the past few decades. However, recent center-right proposals have suggested that Democrats may need to provide more money, and one program stands out as a potential deal: welfare, more formally known as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
In all but a few states, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program has done little to directly support families in need during the pandemic. In the first year of the pandemic, states spent an average of 22% of their TANF budgets on cash support — one percentage point more than in 2019 but still less than in 2017. Additionally, states provide less support to black families, exacerbating racial disparities in child poverty.
Additionally, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is in the news primarily because of salacious cases of fraud in the program. The most high-profile recent case occurred in Mississippi, where the state was accused of improperly spending more than $70 million in TANF funds, including $1.1 million paid to a former NFL quarterback who made millions during his career dollars, at least $4 million of which was spent on money. to build a volleyball court at the University of Southern Mississippi and to establish a drug rehabilitation center in Malibu for a professional wrestler who went by the stage name “Million Dollar Man.”
Giving up TANF comes at a cost, but TANF may be worth a trade if the political balance in Congress requires Congress to identify compensating measures to fund the CTC with expanded benefit levels in 2021. To achieve more substantial and sustainable reductions in child poverty.
America’s record child poverty rate in 2021 should not be viewed as an aberration that cannot be replicated due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. America’s temporary success in eradicating child poverty is a direct result of policy choices that are unique in the history of American public policy but are standard policy tools in most other high-income countries. Both parties in Congress should learn from the lessons of 2021 and 2022 to ensure that fewer children living in poverty become the norm in America, not the exception in the pandemic era.
Zachary Parolin is an assistant professor of social policy at Bocconi University and a senior fellow at the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University. He is the author of Poverty in a Pandemic: Policy Lessons from COVID-19. His recent research on poverty has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Economist, The Atlantic, CNN, U.S. presidential debates, and other outlets.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.