COVID Stimulus Payments Lowered Number of Americans Living in Poverty: Census Bureau

The number of Americans living in poverty decreased when COVID-19 stimulus payments were factored in, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday.

The official poverty measure, which is determined by the Census Bureau, indicated that 11.4 percent of Americans were living in poverty, an increase of 1 percentage point in 2020. The increase was the first after five consecutive years of decline.

However, when looking at a more complete supplemental measure of poverty, which factored in streams of income such as the stimulus payments, which were issued by the government to ease the COVID-19 economic recession, found that the number of Americans in poverty actually dcreased.

Robert Greenstein, founder of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of low-income people, said the decrease from the stimulus checks was proof that the government can help poverty levels.

"For people who have a cynical view that nothing much government does work effectively, particularly on the poverty front, it will be harder to maintain that view," Greenstein said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Poverty COVID-19
The U.S. Census Bureau found that the number of Americans living in poverty decreased when factoring in the COVID-19 stimulus checks. The homeless wait for the chance at securing housing in small trailers for $10 a night on Aug. 5, 2021 in Springfield, Mo., where the homeless and financially insecure have been especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The pandemic shutdown sent tremors through the economy last year. In April alone, more than 20 million workers lost their jobs. Unemployment offices paid out a weekly average of 20 million claims last year. The economy has rebounded since, but employment is still about 5 million jobs below pre-pandemic levels.

Congress passed five bipartisan COVID-19 response bills last year, totaling close to $3.5 trillion and signed into law by then-President Donald Trump. This year Democrats pushed through President Joe Biden's nearly $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan on party-line votes. Its effects are not reflected in the Census report.

Though some of the federal aid last year was delayed for reasons from wrangling over costs to problems with distribution, on the whole it insulated American families from economic disaster that would have compounded the public health crisis. Some groups were left out, such as people not legally authorized to be in the country.

As Americans fought over measures such as mask-wearing and closing down businesses and community life, lawmakers of both parties were motivated to take dramatic action, said economist Bruce Meyer, a University of Chicago expert on poverty.

"You had Democrats who were very focused on helping those who were unemployed and hurting, and you had Republicans who were willing to do many things to help the reelection of their president, so there was a confluence of incentives, or of desires, by politicians on both sides," he said.

Trump ultimately lost reelection but the Census report provides evidence that's relevant to the current debate over Biden's $3.5 trillion social infrastructure plan, said Greenstein, public policy analyst for the Brookings Institution think tank.

The Biden economic plan extends tax credits for families with children, which is seen as a strategy for reducing childhood poverty and its long-term consequences.

Poverty Decrease COVID
The share of Americans living in poverty rose slightly as the COVID pandemic shook the economy last year, but massive relief payments pumped out by Congress eased hardship for many, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday, Sept. 14. In this June 29, 2021, file photo people ride their bikes past a homeless encampment set up along the boardwalk in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles. Jae C. Hong, File/AP Photo