We live in troubled times in this great country and sometimes the bad news can be terribly overwhelming. Don’t worry, I’m not about to offer a catalog of our ills as a country. Rather, I want to share the truly remarkable reduction in poverty rates that has occurred over the past year.
Most amazing is the almost miraculous reduction in child poverty. The final levels of this reduction have yet to be calculated by the various government entities, but all the preliminary numbers are stunning. For example, nearly nine million children have been lifted out of poverty, and it is possible that the actual poverty rate for 2021 will end up nearly halving after remaining almost flat for decades. The irony of what happens during the pandemic is even more amazing!
An overview and explanation of this positive and wonderful development is provided in an article in the current “New York Review of Books” written by Jason De Parle, a journalist specializing in the coverage of poverty in America. Much of the reduction was based on the round of stimulus checks, the creation of the Child Tax Credit, and the expansion of SNAP (food stamp) benefits. Quoting De Parle, “Consider not only the magnitude but also the diversity of the expansion of the safety net since the coronavirus hit. The federal government has spent about $800 billion on stimulus checks alone and hundreds of billion for expanding unemployment assistance.In addition to expanding SNAP, the government sent money to replace meals children lost when schools closed.The huge spending on housing emergency ($46 billion) was exceeded by spending on childcare ($50 billion)”
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And, of course, Congress still needs to act to expand and keep these programs in place for the future. But the reality of the wealthiest nation in the world tolerating poverty and hunger for millions of our children is finally being addressed and changed for the better. Many important positive results will be profound and lasting. Quoting the article again: “Estimates suggest that child tax credit payments would halve child poverty. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine lent the intellectual effort with a report showing that income supplements lead poor children, on average, to higher incomes in adulthood, better health and fewer criminal arrests. Good news indeed.
All of this is encouraging and hopeful in many ways. And some of these changes are here to stay. For example, the significant changes that increase SNAP benefits will continue, and hopefully the same will apply to the Child Tax Credit and other benefits. I don’t think it’s premature to celebrate these changes in policies that affect the rate of poverty and appreciate the reduction in hunger across America. No child in this great and successful country has ever had to go to sleep hungry or wake up and struggle to learn on an empty stomach. Simple truths that we should all understand and cherish.
It was President Franklin Roosevelt who understood that adversity could bring about positive change. This country emerged from the Great Depression with a social safety net that offered hope and protection to the disabled, widowed and elderly. It now seems possible that this terrible pandemic generated the eventual completion of this safety net to include children and families living in poverty. Let’s all hope and pray that this happens.
I fully realize that there is still a long way to go and that nuances and inversions may develop as we move towards 2022. But for now, there are good reasons for optimism that our children and grandchildren will see a brighter future where poverty and hunger are greatly reduced in this country.
I want to end this column with another quote from Mr. DeParle’s article. This quote is from our own Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture. In a conversation with Mr. DeParle in August, Vilsack said: “We have a Constitution and a Declaration of Independence, but if we had 42 million people starving, really starving, they wouldn’t be happy and we would have instability. Politics. The safety net is part of how you build a functioning democratic fabric. It creates a much more stable and secure country. Well said!!
Next week: Steve Warnstadt
A resident of Sioux City, Jim Rixner is the retired executive director of the Siouxland Mental Health Center, is the current chairman of the board of directors of the Winnebago Comprehensive Healthcare System, and is a former member of the Sioux City Council. He and his wife, Bernadette, are the parents of three adult sons and grandparents of nine.