Childhood poverty was cut nearly in half during the Covid pandemic due to expanded federal programs like the child tax credit, and stimulus payments, which also prevented some five million Americans from falling below the poverty line.
Advocates for the poor argued those gains are already being lost since the most helpful programs were not extended, and high inflation is now impacting families as well.
Joe Diamond, executive director of the Massachusetts Association for Community Action, a coalition of some 23 community action agencies, said advocates are using lessons learned during the pandemic to help improve peoples’ lives.
“We were inspired by the resilience of the people that we served, and we also were inspired by what we found to be the effectiveness of the programs that were able to run during the pandemic,” Diamond remarked. “We know that our mission now also includes doing our very best to sustain those programs and to continue to work as hard as we can towards of our goal of reducing poverty.”
Advocates suggested strategies could include the creation of a state-funded child tax credit, providing an adequate guaranteed income, and supporting extensive outreach to ensure every family receives the benefits they need, and to which they’re entitled.
Tax reform and public benefits are not the only answer.
Nancy Wagman, research and Kids Count director at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, said people need good jobs, with growing wages.
“People who are poor are largely working,” Wagman pointed out. “They’re just working at jobs that either don’t pay enough or are unstable, unpredictable hours, those sorts of things. So the kinds of policies that help support work for workers really can make a difference.”
Wagman has updated a pre-pandemic report on the challenges faced by poor people in Massachusetts due to historic underinvestment in public transit, quality child care and affordable housing; challenges only made greater by the pandemic and institutional racism.
For example, Black veterans of World War II were denied the G.I. Bill, and today, Black workers and those of Latin descent have a harder time breaking out of low-wage jobs.
Wagman contended the state can play a crucial role in ensuring barriers to opportunity are dismantled, by revising the tax code, so as not to primarily benefit those on top.
Meanwhile, the need for help remains critical for people living on the margins. The coalition is hosting its first in-person gathering since the start of the pandemic today. They say member organizations are excited to implement the lessons learned these past two years, and they are even more committed to the challenge of ending poverty.
Laura Meisenhelter, executive director of North Shore Community Action Programs, said the need for help has only increased since federal pandemic aid ended.
“We’ve given out more gas cards to help put gas in their car, and gift cards to grocery stores, so they can feed their families,” Meisenhelter outlined. “We’ve done that more than we ever have.”
Anti-poverty advocates are honing in on Essex County, the state’s third most populous county, and focusing on the challenges there related to housing, food insecurity and job development. They hope their work will serve as a model for other counties going forward.
Beth Francis, president and CEO of the Essex County Community Foundation, explained they are one of many charitable organizations supporting such efforts.
“These community action agencies are in all across the Commonwealth, and they do vitally important work,” Francis stressed. “We are proud to fund them, and they work with our most vulnerable families and I think they need to have a little light shed on them.”