How COVID Has Impacted Poverty in America

Posted by Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity on December 15, 2020

PBS’s Frontline takes a deep dive into the impact of the pandemic on the nation’s most at-risk populations, including an abrupt reversal of years of gains in reducing child poverty and poverty overall.

The Census Bureau releases poverty figures on an annual basis with a one-year lag, so the September figures don’t capture COVID-19 realities. When the pandemic started, researchers at Columbia University’s Center on Poverty & Social Policy set out to fill that gap. They began estimating poverty in the U.S. on a monthly basis using the supplemental poverty measure, which takes into account families’ expenses and government assistance.

The researchers put the poverty rate in America before the crisis began at around 15 percent. Even as COVID-19 prompted initial shutdowns in March and some sectors of the economy ground to a halt, income tax credits for eligible families helped offset losses, lowering the poverty rate to 12 percent for that month.

In April, the impact of record high unemployment was blunted by a federal economic relief package: the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Individuals who qualified received stimulus checks of $1,200; married couples received $2,400; and those with children received an additional $500 per child. People who successfully filed for unemployment received an additional $600 per week from the federal government.

Columbia researchers estimated that without the support provided by the CARES Act, poverty in April would have jumped to 19.4 percent. With the support, the month ended at 13.9 percent. Researchers estimated 18 million people were lifted out of poverty in April by the federal relief package.

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