Poverty made an alarming jump. Congress could have stopped it.

New Census figures reveal a troubling trend. After tumbling in 2021, poverty spiked sharply in 2022. Despite steady job growth, the Supplemental Poverty Measure jumped 4.6 points, from 7.8 to 12.4 percent. 

That’s a historic, nearly 60 percent increase just one year after the measure reached a record low. And the rate for children more than doubled, from 5.2 percent in 2021 to 12.4 percent in 2022.

The stark contrast paints a vivid picture of how poverty in this country is a political choice, not a personal one. And it’s a willful unlearning of the lessons we took from the pandemic, a time of nearly unprecedented economic and social crisis.

During the pandemic, families lost jobs, hospitals were overwhelmed and whole cities virtually shut down while supply chain snags caused prices to soar. Faced with rising evictions, food insecurity, medical costs and unemployment, elected officials finally did what social movements and anti-poverty experts had been demanding for decades: fix and strengthen our frayed social safety net.

The CARES Act in 2020, a bipartisan measure, provided stimulus checks and expanded unemployment benefits and loans and grants to small businesses. 

The American Rescue Plan in 2021, which passed with only Democratic votes, offered additional direct payments to households and more help to small businesses. It expanded access to affordable health care, made the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit bigger, provided free COVID testing and vaccines and increased government help for families trying to afford food, housing and debt. It helped families of every race, ethnicity and income status. 

And it worked. 

The looming hunger crisis was averted, people kept their homes and COVID-19 deaths began to decline. It also reversed the pandemic recession, increased GDP, brought unemployment to historic lows and cut child poverty about in half.

How dramatic was the shift? Due to these critical pandemic income supports, the federal government’s Supplemental Poverty Measure ticked down in 2021 to 7.8 percent — its lowest-ever rate — as 45 million Americans escaped poverty.

Unfortunately, most of these expanded supports were slated to expire in 2022 or at the end of the Public Health Emergency unless Congress acted to extend or make them permanent.

Public support was overwhelmingly behind extending these programs and expanding them through what the Biden administration dubbed the Build Back Better plan, which would have strengthened the safety net even further. And unlike the Trump tax cuts for the rich, which helped to balloon the deficit, these programs would be fully paid for by fairly taxing large corporations and the very wealthy.

While the bill had majority support from elected Democrats, it failed when two — Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — joined every congressional Republican in opposition. The bill’s opponents in both parties were richly rewarded by high-end donors who’d also given handsomely to support those tax cuts for the rich.

After 245 years as a nation, we finally touched on a political solution to the long-entrenched political problem of poverty in this very wealthy nation. In the most dire of situations — a global pandemic that took the lives of over 1 million Americans and threatened the livelihoods of millions more — we passed policies to lift and keep 53 million people out of poverty between 2020 and 2021, reverse a recession and bring unemployment to historic lows.

Then corporate-backed lawmakers put it all to an end.

Nearly 4 million children were thrust back into poverty when the Child Tax Credit expansion alone ended. And with expansions to Medicaid and SNAP, along with countless other anti-poverty supports, also ending, more families struggled to keep up with pandemic inflation and corporate price gouging.

It’s time for policymakers to listen to American workers and families instead of billionaires and corporate bosses. If we know what works, then why don’t we do it?

Karen Dolan directs the Criminalization of Race and Poverty Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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