A Closer Look: Mid-Recession, Why Aren’t Poverty Rates Skyrocketing?

Shutterstock | Jonathan Weiss

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The U.S. has been mired in the worst recession in most Americans’ lifetimes since late February, according to top economists. From the highest rates of unemployment in our country’s entire history to miles-long lines at food banks, it’s obvious that millions of Americans are in dire financial straits. One would expect, then, that the poverty rate in America would also be skyrocketing.

However, multiple studies in the past couple weeks have shown that the American poverty rate has actually stayed steady for one reason alone: the massive expansion of federal aid in the CARES Act. 

These benefits have kept millions of Americans from falling into abject poverty during the most dangerous health and economic crisis in decades, and it’s hard to comprehend what an amazing feat that is given the scale of the COVID-19 catastrophe. At least 45 million people have lost their jobs, and the economy has largely been in a tailspin for months on end with little certainty as to our way out. Despite all this, government action has kept millions of Americans out of poverty.

The fact that government policies have rescued millions of people from the brink is proof that poverty isn’t inevitable – it is a policy choice.

The federal government’s CARES Act response is far from comprehensive, and notably short-changed vulnerable groups like college-age adults, undocumented immigrants, and folks struggling to get healthcare without an employer. But without things like the $600 federal addition to state unemployment benefits, expansion of food assistance programs like SNAP, a federal eviction moratorium, and one-time stimulus checks, experts estimate that 12 million more people would have fallen into poverty in the past three months alone.

Now imagine what the poverty line would look like if we not only committed to fortifying and strengthening this social safety net in the future, but if we expanded it to include those left-out vulnerable groups. Eliminating poverty entirely suddenly becomes a goal within our reach instead of an outlandish idealistic dream. So why isn’t that the reality right now?

The sad answer is that eliminating poverty is simply not a priority for many of the folks running our government. If we were able to keep millions of people out of poverty during the worst economic crisis in a century, we are certainly able to do it in more prosperous times, but that’s entirely dependent on the will of our legislators – and many, mostly in the GOP, have made their opposition to any and all social safety net policies infuriatingly clear. 

The richest country in the history of the world shouldn’t have any of its citizens living hand-to-mouth. Not a single one. So while the fight to eradicate poverty in the long-term will be a struggle, there’s some immediate action we can all take right now to make sure that the most vulnerable will continue to be protected through the duration of the COVID-19 crisis.

Many of the federal CARES Act benefits are set to expire at the end of July, threatening to throw those 12 million people – and likely millions more – back onto the edge of financial collapse come August 1. 

This is not inevitable. Congressional Democrats are fighting to defend these benefits and extend them through the end of this crisis, but to do that, GOP lawmakers need to feel the pressure.

We urge you to call your lawmakers at (202) 224-3121 to demand the extension of CARES Act benefits to help all Americans weather this crisis. You will need to know the names of your lawmakers to be connected with them at this number. Fighting for these benefits is a top priority of the Patriotic Millionaires’ and allies’ DARES Project to directly lobby our lawmakers, so you can rest assured that if you call, we are right there with you.

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