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COVID Aid Programs Cut Poverty By 45 Percent. Will It Last?

One of the largest reductions in poverty ever happened during COVID. But the social safety net programs likely won't last.

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The pandemic has not simply been a pandemic of disease. It’s also been a pandemic that has decimated people’s livelihoods and finances.

Millions of Americans lost work, access to child care, struggled with food insecurity, and fought to make ends meet as entire industries shuttered. In response to the protracted economic crisis wrought on by COVID, the American government stepped in, in part, with a social safety net program expansion not seen in decades. 

And as a result, the number of poor Americans will likely fall by about 45 percent, from years previous, per The New York Times reporting of research from Columbia University. And, per the New York Times, the group that saw the largest reduction of poverty, in general, were children.

The poverty reduction was aided by extended and enhanced unemployment benefits, food stamp expansions, three separate stimulus checks, and monthly cash in the form of child tax credits, all of which have put cash directly in the hands of Americans both at and below the poverty line and well above it into the middle class. The last two stimulus checks alone cut financial instability by half, per studies.

But these programs, and the expansion of the social safety net, are so far merely only temporary, a way to get through a nearly unprecedented economic crisis. 

These reductions in poverty, a massive problem in the wealthiest nation in the United States, a country where billionaires amassed wealth at unprecedented rates during the pandemic, where wealth inequality rivals the Gilded Age, where 40% of families cannot afford a $400 emergency expense or more, could only be temporary as Congress debates the future of the social safety net they expanded for the pandemic.

In the meantime, families remain in the lurch. The enhanced federal unemployment benefits that were cut early by over half of the states across the country are soon to be cut for another 20 million Americans, which will absolutely strip support away from many millions of needy Americans.

Many millions of Americans are without work but still actively looking for jobs, and those numbers will only grow. Of states that cut federal unemployment, those who have been kicked off haven’t found work, and instead are just struggling to make ends meet and pay for basics.

The child tax credit, which alone will be responsible for a massive reduction in child poverty, is set to only last until the end of this year unless the Democrats succeed in expanding it to 2025.

In the meantime, the massive reductions in both regular poverty and child poverty (a decline of 45 and 61 percent from previous levels, respectively) may only be a blip on the radar, rather than an America becoming more economically fair and just.