“In 2021, the child poverty rate — as measured by the supplemental poverty measure that incorporates the value of government benefits — took a sharp drop to its lowest point on record: 5.2 percent, so that 3.8 million American children were living below the federal poverty line. Then, as a report just released by the Census Bureau found, it experienced the steepest rise in its history in 2022: a hike of 139 percent, or more than double, to 12.4 percent. Five million kids fell back into poverty, pushing the number of kids whose parents were struggling to meet their basic needs up to 9 million.
To anyone following the politics of poverty in America, the jagged rebound was entirely unsurprising. The child poverty rate was like a loaded spring being held down by pandemic-era welfare programs. Chief among them: the child allowance, which expanded on the existing child tax credit (CTC) and sent monthly payments to all parents in poverty, helping to cut child poverty by 46 percent in 2021. Release the spring — or let the expanded CTC expire, as Congress did — and of course it will shoot right back up. The child poverty rates settled right back around pre-pandemic 2019 levels.”
“The concern is that giving out money to people in poverty without requiring them to work in exchange will ultimately create communities where dropping out of work is both widespread and accepted. Cash with no strings attached “gives up on work,” as one conservative analyst put it.
While there have always been disagreements about that view, increasingly, the evidence is against it. Unconditional cash transfers in low-income countries have been found to stimulate economic activity. In a pilot program for guaranteed income in Stockton, California, recipients of unconditional cash were quicker to find full-time employment than control groups.
Looking specifically at the impacts of the expanded CTC, there was no evidence that receiving the benefit reduced work, and economists at Columbia University estimated that making the program permanent would deliver a more than tenfold return on the investment of about $100 billion per year — a major boost to the economy. That means in addition to solidifying the massive drop in child poverty and giving millions of struggling American families continued support to pay for food, school supplies, utilities, and rent, taxpayers would also save money in the long run.”
“a survey of more than 1,000 low-income Pennsylvanians found that taxes are often a major barrier to economic security—ranking ahead of more commonly discussed problems such as credit card debt and student loans. Among those surveyed, all of whom have incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level (about $53,000 annually for a family of four), the average respondent reported paying $4,575 per year in taxes.”
“The paper asks officials to consider a counterfactual history: If Pennsylvania had enacted a rule in 2003 that capped future government spending increases at a combination of inflation and population growth (and had returned the surplus to taxpayers), the average low-income resident of the state would have an extra $20,000 in the bank today, simply due to the lower tax burden.”
“Most surprising is that declines in poverty, rather than stalling with the decline of the Covid-19 pandemic, accelerated. While economic conditions could have led to one of the largest increases in poverty on record, the federal government stepped in to support families as the economy ground to a halt. While the pandemic brought a new set of hardships, these federal relief efforts prompted child poverty to fall sharply: In 2020, according to the supplemental poverty measure, child poverty fell from 12.5 percent to 9.7 percent — by far the largest single-year drop over the previous half-century.
These declines continued in 2021. In figures released Tuesday, we learned that in 2021 child poverty fell even further, to just 5.2 percent, by far the lowest rate ever recorded. This means that, between 2020 and 2021, an additional 3.4 million children were pulled out of poverty, and over the past two years almost 5.5 million children were, as the child poverty rate fell by nearly 60 percent in just two years.”
“it’s no great mystery how it happened. To stave off a recession and prevent a spike in material hardship amid widespread joblessness and economic uncertainty, the federal government temporarily reinvented the traditional US safety net, pushing cash into US households. There were three rounds of economic impact payments (stimulus checks), expanded unemployment assistance, and, in 2021, an expanded child tax credit, which sent modest monthly cash payments to most American households with children from July through December 2021.
While the traditional safety net targets poor families and relies heavily on in-kind benefits rather than money, the pandemic safety net was largely cash-based, unrestricted, and nearly universal.”
Over the past two years, tens of millions of people lost work and had their lives disrupted by Covid-19. Yet amid this economic disruption, child poverty plummeted.”
“An analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that, absent government intervention, poverty in 2020 would have experienced its second-largest increase on record, but as a result of the pandemic safety net, poverty in the US experienced the largest single-year decline in more than 50 years.”
“these programs were long gone before inflation became more entrenched. Inflation began in the goods-producing sector, as supply chain problems and rising shipping costs, combined with increased demand for goods, led prices to soar. Inflation was further spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its impact on global energy and food prices. More notably, as relief programs ended, growth in demand did not appreciably slow. A quick look across the globe reveals that inflation has hit most countries in the wake of the pandemic regardless of the share of children who go to bed hungry.
While government pandemic spending has certainly played some role in pushing prices upward, it is important to recognize the uncertainty around the economic recovery. These same policies were responsible for the economy’s rapid recovery and swift employment growth. Following the Great Recession, unemployment remained elevated for years, to devastating effect.”
“in the last two years, labor force participation rates have steadily recovered as the economy adjusted to living with the pandemic and showed no sign of accelerating as income supports expired.”
“One pandemic-era policy is permanent: a change to the way food assistance benefit levels are calculated. This will reduce hardship and poverty going forward and should be celebrated. But most of the new Covid-era safety net has already expired, and we should expect child poverty to rise in tandem in 2022.
The clearest avenue for action, to relieve the current rise in hardship and ensure the lessons of the pandemic safety net are not lost to history, is to revive the expanded child tax credit. Most wealthy Western nations use a universal child allowance or child benefit — money sent to families with children across the income spectrum — to help defray the big costs that come with raising children and better ensure the healthy development of that nation’s children.
For the final six months of 2021, the US finally joined this group, and the results, as we now know, were staggering. Child poverty, child food insecurity, and other measures of material hardship all fell sharply. Critics feared the payments would provide a disincentive to work, but the policy had no discernible impact on the labor force participation of recipients. The benefits of the policy were extraordinary, and the downsides were negligible. We can, and should, bring it back.”
“But what about inflation? Can we really send more cash to households while the Fed is trying to rein in spending? Data shows that low- and middle-income families receiving child tax credit payments in 2021 largely spent the funds on necessities, like food and utilities — the same necessities that Americans are now paying higher prices for — so the payments would go a long way toward relieving rising material hardship.
At the same time, a number of economists have noted that the expanded child tax credit is “too small to meaningfully increase inflation across the whole economy.” Perhaps most importantly, the government can help the most vulnerable in our society, even if it means asking others to chip in more to offset those costs. The Inflation Reduction Act begins that process by ensuring that the IRS can collect the tax revenue that high-income Americans actually owe.”
“On a certain level, it seems intuitive that doing more for people — giving assets and training and cash — will produce better outcomes than just giving one thing, like cash. But the downside is that it takes more time, effort, and money to run a more complex intervention.
So a major question looms over the graduation program: Is it worth spending that money on the program or is it more efficient to just give all the money directly to people in need? In other words, is it really useful to teach the person to fish or should you just give them the damn fish already?”
“In recent years, development experts have moved toward an important idea called “cash benchmarking,” which basically says that cash is the benchmark against which all other anti-poverty interventions should be judged. Since giving people cash is easy, efficient, and respectful of their autonomy, aid agencies should only run a different type of program if testing shows that it works better than cash would.
Nowadays, when studies come out showing positive results for graduation programs, there’s a tendency to think that this particular combination — cash plus assets plus training — does work better than simply giving cash. But just because the graduation approach works great in some scenarios doesn’t mean it’s always the most efficient approach.
For starters, though, let’s look at the evidence suggesting that cash-plus programs work better than simple cash programs. Three studies have run this sort of comparison.
In South Sudan, a study looked at what happened to 250 households that got a full graduation program, compared to 125 households that got only cash and 274 households that received neither. Both graduation and cash increased consumption, but only the graduation group saw a significant increase in assets, a sign of more durable wealth. Although the cash group shifted a bit from agriculture to other types of work, they didn’t set up their own lasting businesses that may have been higher-paying.
In Uganda, researchers evaluated a graduation-style program run by a group called Village Enterprise. It offered training and a capital grant to extremely poor people so they could start a small business. The researchers found that it worked well, increasing self-employment income and consumption. In fact, it outperformed cash on these measures. The authors speculate that, “left to themselves — without training and mentorship — beneficiaries [of cash transfers alone] struggled to make productive investments, maintain them, and derive sustained value from them.”
In Niger, a new randomized study has highlighted the benefits of taking a multifaceted approach to extreme poverty. The study evaluated women who were already enrolled in a government cash transfer program. The goal was to understand how psychosocial issues — like feeling depressed or disconnected from your community — might make it harder to seize economic opportunities. The study found that the women who got psychosocial support showed rates of returns that were higher than those who got only cash. Offering psychosocial support was the most cost-effective route 18 months after the intervention.”
“while graduation programs appear to work great in some places, they’re dependent on the market — and they can run into problems in places where the market is either too dysfunctional or, ironically, too functional.
One randomized trial in India, published in 2012, is an example of the latter. It found that a graduation program yielded no net impact. Although it shifted participants away from agricultural jobs to other sorts of work, they could’ve earned just as much in their original agricultural jobs. While those original jobs were far from big money-makers, wages for agricultural labor had been improving in India, thanks to programs like the ambitious National Rural Employment Guarantee, so adding in a graduation program didn’t really help.
Dysfunctional markets produce their own obstacles. Abed told me about his experience trying to run a graduation program in Balochistan, an extremely dry, desert-like province in southwestern Pakistan, where participants were taught how to run a small business. One problem: There wasn’t a functional market for the businesses to thrive in. “Once they graduated, there wasn’t much to go to,” said Abed. “And there wasn’t microfinance available. So it was very, very difficult.””
“Another way a graduation program can flop is if it fails to be cost-effective. In the huge 2015 randomized study that looked at graduation programs in six countries, Banerjee and his co-authors note that although the program proved extremely cost-effective in some places, easily paying for itself within 10 years, other countries don’t have such low costs and high benefits in the short run. In Peru, for example, such a program wouldn’t break even.”
“Abed is convinced that graduation is the best approach for the ultra-poor, but he acknowledges that what makes the most sense for the moderate poor is a somewhat open question. Also, while graduation may be best for ultra-poor people who are young and healthy enough to go start businesses if given half a chance, it may not work for those who are elderly or disabled. For those groups, the answer may well be cash transfers.”
“Almost half the United States is ready to outlaw abortion now that the Supreme Court has overruled Roe v. Wade. But many of those states are not willing to give new babies and their families the educational, medical, or financial support they need to lead a healthy life. That could leave tens of thousands of future children unnecessarily disadvantaged and living in poverty.”
“Those births will predominately be in the states with the most draconian post-Roe abortion restrictions. And with a few exceptions, those 22 states rank in the bottom half of states in the comprehensive support they provide to children and their families, according to the State-by-State Spending on Kids Dataset compiled by Brown University’s Margot Jackson and her colleagues. The disparities can be enormous: Vermont spends three times as much money on education, health care, and other economic support for children as Utah.”
“The children born in these circumstances will start life a few steps behind, all because their political leaders strove to ban abortion without offering support to the children who would be born if their aims were achieved.”
“Prior to the fall of Kabul in August 2021, the Afghan economy relied heavily on foreign aid; after the Taliban takeover, that influx of cash ceased. Under Taliban rule, unemployment is rampant and banks operate intermittently, with people able to withdraw no more than $100 in a month. On top of that, the US froze much of the $9.4 billion in Afghan currency reserves in Afghanistan’s central bank in August — a move which has functionally cut the country off from many foreign banks and left the Central Bank of Afghanistan unable to access its reserves and shore up the country’s cash flow.
Now, much of the country is facing poverty and starvation: In December, the World Food Program (WFP) found that 98 percent of Afghans aren’t getting enough to eat, and Guterres warned this month that “we are in a race against time to help the Afghan people.””
“Many of Afghanistan’s current problems are intimately connected to the US withdrawal from the country last year, and the Taliban’s ensuing takeover of the central government. Since then, US sanctions and an abrupt end to international aid have wrecked Afghanistan’s economy and sent it spiraling into crisis.
The US and the UN have made some concessions to allow humanitarian aid to operate outside the auspices of the Taliban; the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) granted some licenses to aid groups to operate in Afghanistan without running afoul of financial restrictions on other individuals and institutions in the country.
But, as experts have said, it’s not nearly enough to bring the Afghan people anywhere close to the needed aid, and regardless of the OFAC licenses, the Afghan banking system is still essentially held hostage by US sanctions against the Taliban.”
“The chilling effect of sanctions is keeping businesses and banks from actually engaging with the economy. As House Democrats pointed out in their letter last month, relatively simple steps — like issuing letters to international businesses assuring them that they are not violating US sanctions — could help alleviate the crisis and shore up the Afghan private sector, but the US Treasury has yet to do so.”
“In the meantime, the Taliban will hold talks this coming week with Western nations, including Norway, the UK, the US, Italy, France, and Germany, about humanitarian aid. The talks should not be seen as a legitimization of Taliban rule, Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt stressed to AFP on Friday, “but we must talk to the de facto authorities in the country. We cannot allow the political situation to lead to an even worse humanitarian disaster.””
“A peculiar thing happened last year during the Covid-19 pandemic: As large swaths of the U.S. economy shut down and unemployment skyrocketed, hunger rates held steady and poverty rates went down.
From the pandemic’s earliest days, Washington showed it had learned the lessons of past crises like the 2008 financial collapse, when policymakers responded with too little too late to help people get by and the economic recovery was hampered as a result. So as the country faced a once-in-a-century pandemic and the sharpest economic downturn since the Great Depression, Congress threw trillions at the double disaster, sending unprecedented levels of aid to American families and businesses.
Soon, a pattern was evident, thanks in part to real-time monitoring by the U.S. Census Bureau: When Washington doled out federal aid, hardship declined. When Washington let aid expire, hardship ticked back up.
In essence, the pandemic triggered a country-wide policy experiment aimed at keeping families fed and financially afloat. There have been big increases in food stamps and unemployment benefits. Three rounds of stimulus checks. Universal free meals at schools and new grocery benefits for kids who are learning virtually, or out of school during the summer. Hundreds of millions of food boxes flooded into churches and other nonprofits.
The latest tranche of aid may carry the biggest bang yet: six monthly child tax credit payments that will be dispersed through the end of the year. The first two rounds of payments that went out in July and August fueled a dramatic reduction in the rate of American households with kids who report sometimes or often not having enough to eat in the past week, according to the Census Bureau.
All that aid appears to have worked.
“Lo and behold, if you give people money, they are less poor,” said Elaine Waxman, an economist and senior fellow at the Urban Institute who has closely monitored how low-income households have fared throughout the crisis.”
“the U.S. has long been seen as an outlier for its comparatively limited safety net, and is sometimes referred to as “the reluctant welfare state.” Other wealthy countries, like Canada and the United Kingdom, have more generous unemployment programs and provide allowances to help with the costs of raising children, on top of providing health care and other benefits that are broadly available, even to middle-income households.
By contrast, in the United States, there has been a much greater focus on ensuring aid goes primarily to low-income households that have met strict eligibility and income requirements. America’s two biggest safety net programs, Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, (still known to many as “food stamps”), have fairly low income caps and are squarely aimed at providing in-kind benefits like medical coverage and food — not giving people money to spend how they see fit.”