At the close of 2019, the U.S. poverty rate was at a record low, but at the start of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to upend that trend and plunge millions of Americans into poverty. Instead, despite the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression, the poverty rate declined to the lowest in modern U.S. history. In Poverty in the Pandemic social policy scholar Zachary Parolin provides a data-driven account of how poverty influenced the economic, social, and health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., as well as how the country’s policy response led to historically low poverty rates.
Drawing on dozens of data sources ranging from debit and credit card spending, the first national databases of school and childcare center closures in the U.S., and bi-weekly Census-run surveys on well-being, Parolin finds that entering the pandemic in poverty substantially increased a person’s likelihood of experiencing negative health outcomes due to the pandemic, such as contracting and dying from COVID, as well as losing their job. Additionally, he found that students from poor families suffered the greatest learning losses as a result of school closures and the shift to distance learning during the pandemic.
Unprecedented legislative action by the U.S. government, including the passage of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, and the American Rescue Plan (ARP) helped mitigate the economic consequences of the pandemic and lifted around 18 million Americans out of poverty. Based on the success of these policies, Parolin concludes with policy suggestions that the U.S. can implement in more ‘normal’ times to improve the living conditions of low-income households after the pandemic subsides, including expanding access to Unemployment Insurance, permanently expanding the Child Tax Credit, promoting greater access to affordable, high-quality healthcare coverage, and investing more resources into the Census Bureau’s data-collection capabilities. He also details a method of producing a monthly measurement of poverty, to be used in conjunction with the traditional annual measurement, in order to better understand the intra-year volatility of poverty that many Americans experience.
Poverty in the Pandemic provides the most complete account to date of the unique challenges that low-income households in the U.S. faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.