Social science speaks clearly and convincingly about the most effective ways to reduce poverty: feed people and keep them housed. And when calamity struck in the form of a global COVID-19 pandemic, policy makers at the state and national levels unsheathed the best of those strategies to make sure we didn’t have sky-high eviction rates or record numbers of people going hungry.
Astoundingly, poverty rates nationwide actually declined during the global public health and economic crisis. As a nation, we should be proud of that.
And it raises questions. With the expiration of the national public health emergency, some of these proven strategies and program expansions are going by the wayside. As Coloradans, we need to understand this is a policy choice.
We must ask ourselves: Is this really the choice we want to make?
On its face, it may seem counterintuitive that poverty didn’t skyrocket during COVID-19. Yet, despite record unemployment rates, poverty declined between 2020 and 2022, according to data from Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy.
The explanation is simple. We made unprecedented and comprehensive investments in proven programs that comprise the social safety net. The Columbia data show, for instance, how monthly poverty rates declined in concert with events like the distribution of Earned Income Tax Credits, Child Tax Credits and stimulus checks.
We prioritized supporting people who were economically stressed by bolstering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid and unemployment insurance; enacting eviction moratoriums, and by;putting student loan repayments on pause.
There is no shortage of data on the impacts of these decisions:
- According to the US Census Bureau, in 2021 the supplemental child poverty rate fell to the lowest level in a decade. The Census Bureau attributed this to the “expansion of anti-poverty programs during the COVID pandemic.”
- The Urban Institute noted a similar drop in poverty, and attributed it to government assistance. As the Institute notes, this quick drop in poverty was unprecedented.
- Individual programs have also been highlighted for their impact. For example, additional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits have been credited with keeping 4.2 million families out of poverty, and the expanded child tax credit reduced child poverty by almost 3%.
A variety of other indicators suggest increased overall well-being:
- Savings rates increased during the pandemic — including for those in the lowest income quartile.
- Between 2019 and 2020, eviction filings in Colorado fell by 57%.
- Before COVID-19, nearly 10% of all student debt in Colorado was 30 or more days delinquent. This dropped to less than 1 percent.
By many measures, COVID-19 pandemic relief was a success. Nevertheless, many of these programs, if they haven’t already, are coming to an end. And we’re seeing a troubling rise financial stress indicators:
- Nationwide, eviction rates increased by almost 80% between 2022 and 2023.
- Credit card debt has risen to record highs. Colorado has the 11th highest credit card debt in the country, with the average borrower holding a balance of about $8,000.
- Colorado also has one of the highest rates of new users of alternative lending products – many of which have high interest rates and fees.
Many of the most significant program expansions – like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid – have only recently ended and it’s still too early to understand the impacts. There is broad concern about growing food insecurity and rising numbers of those without health insurance.
The end of COVID-19 support has not gone unnoticed by state and local leaders, and there are initiatives under way to fill gaps, including:
- Legislative efforts to increase funding for healthy and affordable food. Recently, these included HB23-1008, which will improve access to low-cost healthy food options, and HB23-1158, which is intended to increase food access for older adults.
- The Department of Health Care Policy & Financing is working to alert those who may lose Medicaid coverage about their recent change in status, while also connecting them to other insurance options.
- Nonprofit organizations, such as Hunger Free Colorado, are connecting individuals to community-based resources.
These local efforts are important, and reflect the ongoing work of supporting economic well-being throughout Colorado. However, these organizations have limited resources and can’t match the pandemic-driven investments made by federal and state governments.
During COVID-19, we intentionally chose to address poverty and bolster programs we knew worked. We prioritized families’ health and well-being, and we succeeded: poverty dropped during a time of deep financial and social upheaval.
However, the risk of economic vulnerability didn’t start or end with COVID-19. As enhanced government assistance is reduced, many families continue to face economically challenging times. Some indicators suggest these challenges will grow in the coming months.
We know which social safety systems work. COVID-19 spotlighted their value and efficacy. What remains is for us to learn from these past several years and grow the effective policies that support our communities.
Andrea Kuwik, of Lakewood, is senior policy analyst for The Bell Policy Center.
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