Unprecedented Experiment: Pandemic Initiatives Provide Roadmap to Ending U.S. Child Poverty

banner child protecting himself from rain with manhole cover

By Courteney Stuart

The COVID-19 pandemic cast a dark cloud across children’s lives, interrupting education and socialization. For the poorest families in the U.S., however, there was a silver lining. The unprecedented global crisis created the political will to implement long-called-for expansions of government benefits. The March 2020 passage of the American Rescue Plan expanded the child tax credit and created other financial cushions, sending money directly to the most vulnerable families for the first time.

The sprawling legislative efforts led to a historic low in the U.S. child poverty rate in 2021 of 5.2 percent. That figure was reason to celebrate, since childhood poverty, particularly in the first six years of life, is linked to poor adult outcomes, including lower education and higher rates of mental health issues. The record-setting low quickly reversed, however, after Congress allowed the expanded benefits to expire the following year. According to a 2023 U.S. Census report, child poverty more than doubled in 2022, jumping 7.2 percentage points to 12.4 percent. The data on child poverty wasn’t the only troubling trend.

half rainy half sunny view of a neighborhood

“You can see basically boomerang trends and measures of hunger, which unfortunately had dipped really low and then went right back up,” says Megan Curran, policy director at the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University. Curran co-authored a Center study on children left behind by the child tax credit in 2022.

”The percentage of families saying that they can or cannot cover their regular expenses went down and then of course went back up,” she says.

The current child poverty and related figures are undoubtedly alarming, but the stark contrast between the data from 2021 and 2022 provides hard evidence for social workers and others who work to end child poverty about what is possible and what interventions actually work—from financial to psychosocial supports.

“I think the crisis brought to our attention the fact that we historically have had a lot of gaps in the way that we support families and especially families with kids,” said Curran. “A lot of these changes are things that make sense in normal times over a more permanent basis.”

Curran says the Center’s research shows that expanding benefits—including the child tax credit, food and housing assistance, and unemployment insurance—is an effective means to improve child poverty statistics and correlated measures of childhood well-being. Social workers have key roles to play, she says, both by helping clients access services and benefits and by then reporting their observations.

“They can feed this information of their experiences on the ground with families back up into their local state and federal policymakers and try and help inform that debate and discussion as well,” she says.

Expanded Child Tax Credit

There’s no simple fix to the U.S. child poverty crisis, but Curran says the data from 2021 and 2022 shows that expanding the child tax credit permanently is the best place to start.

“It made a big difference for child poverty across the board, but it also really reduced child poverty for children of color as well as white children because finally everyone had the same level of access to the credit,” she says.

Signed into law in the late 1990s, the Child Tax Credit was primarily only available to middle-income families, Curran says. There were efforts over the years to expand the credit to benefit children in lower income families, but the biggest change prior to 2021 was a tax package Congress passed in 2017 that expanded eligibility upward to include families with incomes up to $400,000.

child reaching for adult with umbrella and grocery bag

“It actually was still leaving out one out of every three children nationwide because their family incomes were too low to qualify,” Curran explains. “People who pay attention to these programs and their impacts on families always were sort of pointing out and saying, ‘This really needs addressing,’ but it became, I think, very much exacerbated and brought to the forefront of everyone’s attention when the crisis hit with the pandemic.”

One of the people paying attention to these programs and what happened before, during and after the pandemic is Cara Baldari, vice president of family economics, housing and homelessness at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit First Focus on Children.

She cites Curran’s Columbia research showing that 91 percent of children below the poverty line were unable to receive the full child tax credit in 2022.

“And that’s disproportionately kids of color, who we know because of systemic racism and discrimination tend to have some of the lowest incomes,” she says. “That includes kids in rural communities where incomes are lower.”

The American Rescue Plan built a temporary bridge to those previously excluded children and families, providing all single-parent households with an income up to $112,500 with $3,600 per child in 2021 for children up to age 6 and $3,000 per child ages 6-17. The income threshold for two-parent households was set at $150,000. Two-parent families with incomes up to $400,000 received $2,000 per child, and above that income level, the amount phased out.

Baldari says other initiatives that were tested during the pandemic, like expanded food and health care assistance, also are important and are included in the proposed Children’s Budget 2023 created by First Focus as a guide for legislators. She agrees with Curran that permanently expanding the child tax credit is the priority.

“We already know how it plays out and what it does to the data,” she said. “And then if you get closer down to the ground level, you can go family to family and find out how it’s really changing each life.”

On The Ground Impact

In the Brightmoor neighborhood on the western edge of Detroit, the devastating impacts of child poverty are felt by nearly all of its 14,000 residents. According to the 2021 American Community Survey, more than 90 percent of the neighborhood’s residents are Black and, with a median household income of about $33,000, many live below the poverty line.

Forty-six-year-old Monique Taylor is among the current and former Brightmoor residents who saw firsthand the impact of the expanded child tax credit. In her case, it was watching its effect on her 28-year-old son and his young daughters.

“He was struggling to pay his house note and paying the car note. And so with the child tax credit, he was able to not have to go to the blood bank and sell blood to get extra money to have gas in his car and stuff like that,” she says.

For more than 20 years, the adult residents of Brightmoor have worked to improve their economic situations and children’s futures through the Brightmoor Alliance, a coalition of more than 50 organizations in the Detroit area working to create a safe, healthy environment that allows children and their parents to thrive. The Alliance uses a holistic approach to reduce poverty and improve outcomes for children, incorporating parental education and other social-emotional initiatives as well as streamlining access to resources for residents. Both Taylor and her sister, Makese, serve as peer coaches for other Brightmoor residents. Makese Taylor also saw the profound impact of the expanded child tax credit in 2021.

“I know for the families that I deal with that it was helpful for them to get the food that they needed that they didn’t have at first,” she says of the expanded child tax credit payments. “Then when they cut it off, it just seemed like we were back at the same routine as we were before they gave them the tax credit. And so that’s another hurtful feeling.”

Makese Taylor says the expanded child tax credit payments allowed some of the women she works with to afford the child care necessary for them to hold a job, and she notes that the loss of the extra income doesn’t just hurt the parents who received it.

“It hurts the entire family because they have to pull from other people,” she says, adding that not everybody has money to lend to those struggling.

The interventions being applied in Brightmoor have been tracked for years through a partnership between the Alliance and the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work Community Engagement, says UM professor and Community Engagement Director Trina Shanks. The pandemic, she explains, sparked a radical shift in the way the U.S. has traditionally approached poverty.

“We woke up,” she says, recalling the sudden focus on frontline and other “essential” workers and the pain felt by those individuals and their families when the praise—and financial support—vanished almost as quickly as it had arrived.

“We have these people who are the backbone of our society. We want to make sure we take care of them, we want to make sure their families are whole. And then all of a sudden that rhetoric went away, and so they’re no longer essential and they’re no longer important and we no longer care,” she says.

As the extra financial support disappeared, she says, familiar criticisms of the poor also resurfaced.

“Sometimes we’re going back to blaming people again. Why can’t you do this? Why can’t your children go to school? Why can’t you be stable? Why can’t you, blah, blah, blah, when for at least a few months, it seemed like there was some support,” she says.

While it may seem obvious that providing financial support to the poorest families would help lift children out of poverty, Brightmoor Alliance Executive Director Larry Simmons says it’s a mistake to believe that money alone will solve the poverty problem.

“It’s a false indicator just to look at money,” Simmons says. “There’s a lot more going on.”

Building Relationships

family learning about money and holding a coin

When Simmons, a longtime pastor, joined the board of the Brightmoor Alliance 23 years ago, he believed ending poverty would be possible as soon as the right services and support were made available.

“I was so naive when we first got started in this in so many ways,” he said. “Here’s the truth. If the challenges of poverty were easy to solve, they would be solved. It’s hard. It’s hard because it involves so many parts of us.”

He cites generational poverty as an example of the complexity.

“How does that impact the worldview and the attitude and the hope, the belief system that people have?” he asked. “Let’s stop pretending like there’s no difference between somebody who’s lived four generations in poverty… and a child whose parents have just been laid off from, I don’t know, Google… and whose parents will be back to work shortly.”

Children in poverty also experience various types of trauma that compound the impact of being poor. Simmons describes a young girl in Brightmoor who experienced a psychiatric episode after seeing bloodstains and the outline of a body chalked onto the sidewalk in front of her home following a fatal shooting in the neighborhood.

“I’m just a happy-go-lucky 7-year-old, 8-year-old, and I walk out, this is what greets me and all of the attendant police and stuff that’s there. All of these are real,” he said. “Now that’s not real for everybody.”

The Alliance model approaches each Brightmoor resident’s needs according to their age and stage in life, from infancy up.

“That is based on the theory that the community can become its own coaches and mentors,” he says, with older residents encouraging and supporting community members coming up behind them.

That peer coaching or mentoring model is key to successfully helping improve the community members’ life situations, he says, because the coaches have similar lived experiences to the people they’re assisting.

Outsiders, including social workers and pastors like himself— “helpers,” he calls them—have a less direct role.

“What the mentors need are the supports that are coordinated around them,” he said. That includes making sure community members know how to access benefits and which benefits they may be eligible for, including a partial child tax credit.

Simmons says to foster the most productive relationships, helpers must have respect for the community members they’re serving.

“The helper acknowledges that the person who is coming to this relationship out of the neighborhood also has assets and understandings that we don’t have,” he says, citing a statistic that suggests people require three pounds of food a day for good health.

“They’ve figured out how to get three pounds of food a day every day or most days, not just for one person, but for everybody in their household,” Simmons says. “That would take me some doing on the amount of income that they’re working with.”

In addition to building relationships with low-income community members and helping them access benefits, social workers have another critical role to play by communicating what legislative efforts will be most effective, says First Focus on Children’s Baldari.

“We certainly rely on folks like social workers to hear what families are experiencing on the ground,” she says. “We always like to say we’re about 20 people in D.C., and so it’s important for us to be connecting to folks who are working directly with families as to what they’re hearing, what they’re seeing, make sure we’re getting input directly from families as to what they need.”

Courteney Stuart is a veteran media professional based in the Charlottesville, Va., area.


Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University

First Focus on Children (DC)

Brightmoor Alliance (Detroit)

University of Michigan School of Social Work Community Engagement

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