The More the Pandemic-Era Welfare State Shrinks, the More Children Go Hungry

Brand-new Census data shows child poverty has exploded since the expiration of the child tax credit and other pandemic-era protections.

Eliminating programs like the child tax credit and expanded unemployment benefits has triggered an unprecedented spike in poverty. (Sebastian Gollnow / picture alliance via Getty Images)

If you get your news delivered through the filter of pro-Democratic media and commentators, you probably know why so much of the US public is down on the economy and on Joe Biden’s presidency: they’re so blinded by partisanship or deluged with overly pessimistic news about the economy that they’ve been deluded into believing things are much worse than they really are. That explanation remains a leading frame of analysis in the world of mainstream liberal commentary despite the mountain of data that shows the level of suffering in the US economy is very real and very serious.

“People say it’s a terrible economy, but what’s really odd is that people don’t behave as if it’s a terrible economy,” economist Paul Krugman told CNN yesterday. “We don’t really understand why this is happening. . . . There’s a real profound disconnect going on.”

Krugman should have read the brand-new Census Bureau data that came out the day of his interview, which may have aided his understanding. The release gives us another extremely concerning data point to add to the list of them. The top-line news is that poverty rose in 2022, in particular child poverty, which by one measure exploded by the single-biggest clip on record.

While the official poverty rate of 11.5 percent barely budged, the supplemental poverty measure (SPM) rate spiked from 2021, climbing 4.6 points to 12.4 percent in 2022 — the rate’s first increase since 2010. The SPM child poverty rate, meanwhile, shot up to 12.4 percent in 2022, a staggering 139 percent increase from the previous year, according to Columbia University Center on Poverty and Social Policy senior research fellow Zach Parolin. It’s by far the largest year-over-year jump since the rate started being measured in 1967, roughly fourteen times as much as the previous high.

The SPM rate takes into account not just the different housing costs based on where people live and in what kind of dwelling, but also the government benefits they get and the various costs they have to meet, including child care, medical bills, and taxes. The fact that poverty shot up so significantly even when factoring in the economic support Americans have been getting from the government is a striking testament to how badly the country’s ongoing cost-of-living crisis has hit workers.

As the bureau itself points out, the spike in the SPM rate doubtless reflects the January 2022 expiration of the enhanced child tax credit (CTC), one of the most popular and effective policies that came out of Biden’s 2021 stimulus, as well as the September 2021 end of expanded unemployment insurance, among other stimulus payments. While those insurance payments had an enormous effect for those who received them — padding their savings at a time of rising costs, letting them pay down debts and bills, and giving them the financial breathing room to learn new skills, get degrees, or otherwise improve their earning capacity — Biden and his team made a conscious decision not to fight to keep them going.

There are other less-than-great indicators in the Census data. For one, real median household income actually fell 2.3 percent over the year, while the real median earnings of all workers both full- and part-time likewise declined 2.2 percent. On the other hand, the number of people who had no health insurance at any point slightly dropped, from 8.3 percent to 7.9 percent, a difference of 1.3 million people.

This depressing data points to a solution: if nixing cash transfer programs like the child tax credit and expanded unemployment benefits triggered an unprecedented spike in poverty, then restoring them would shave the rate down, as it did before. Census data for 2021, arguably the height of the pandemic-era welfare state, put the SPM child poverty rate at a record-low 5.2 percent.

If nothing else, the new Census figures show it’s not remotely tenable to blame poverty on the people experiencing it, nor to claim that a more generous welfare state won’t do anything to solve it. For a politician trying to win reelection, the data might even suggest what policies he or she should run on and implement to deal with the country’s ongoing cost-of-living crisis.

Unfortunately, Biden is choosing not to do so, betting that voter disgust with Donald Trump and the GOP will be enough to get him over the line despite people’s clearly deteriorating financial situations. Though the White House correctly identified the end of the CTC as the cause of these poor numbers and blamed Republicans for not extending it — and Biden promised to “continue to fight to restore the expanded Child Tax Credit” in a statement reacting to the Census numbers — the policy hasn’t been a major part of his campaign so far. In a high-profile campaign speech in June, Biden didn’t so much as mention the CTC.

Absent any action from the president, it shouldn’t be surprising if these numbers get worse when the figures for 2023 come out next September. This year has seen Biden preside over the disappearance of a host of pandemic-era programs that have been keeping workers afloat in a time of soaring costs, from expanded Medicaid (the expiration of which has stripped nearly six million people of health insurance so far) and enhanced food stamps (slashed by $90-$250 a month). Next month, student loan repayments are set to restart — which some borrowers have reported has them looking at monthly payments of $1,000 or more — while federal funding for childcare will vanish, which will pile more costs onto household budgets.

Perhaps anxiety over the election will eventually force the White House to attempt to do something to alleviate this economic pain — or at the very least run for reelection on doing so. In the meantime, we’ll likely have to sit and watch the spectacle of more and more people plunging into hardship while pundits reassure themselves that it’s all in their heads.