ReubenGBrewer, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

October 15, 2020; New York Times

Times are hard, and, as new research from one team at Columbia and another from the University of Chicago and Notre Dame document, they’re getting harder. The Columbia study shows that the number of people in poverty has grown by eight million since May 2020, even after falling by half of that in March due to the CARES Act. The Chicago and Notre Dame researchers peg the poverty numbers at six million in the past three months, placing the worst of the burden on children and on Black people.

Poverty initially declined due to two provisions of the CARES Act—stimulus payments to families and individuals, and the $600 extra a week in federal supplemental unemployment insurance. But the stimulus payments were a one-time deal and the extra money for unemployment expired at the end of July.

The two studies collected their data differently. Chicago and Notre Dame researchers counted the most recent 12 months of income, while Columbia considered each month of income separately. Columbia’s approach is timelier but ignores earlier paychecks and aid. The conclusions, however, align and both are timelier than the government, which will not release its measures (accumulated on an annual basis) until next fall. No matter which study you choose, the numbers are not good.

Communities of color are more severely affected; the analysts at Chicago and Notre Dame found poverty among Black people rising at a rapid pace as protests over racial inequality become ubiquitous. The data show that Black and Latinx people are more than twice as likely to be poor as white people. The Columbia study estimated the white poverty rate at 12 percent, compared to 17 percent for Asian Americans, 25.2 percent for Black Americans and 25.8 for Latinx people.

Children, too, will bear the brunt of this rise in poverty. Both studies found child poverty rising rapidly. An additional 2.5 million children have fallen below the poverty line since May. According to research, even short stays in poverty can cause lasting harm to children. The long-term costs for our future are high.

And children notice. The story of Jenny Santiago, a single mother of four children between the ages of eight and 13 in Pontiac, Michigan, serves as an example. She quit her job as a driver for takeout services when schools closed in March to watch her children. The stimulus check and $600 unemployment bonus provided her with some help, but, as she said, “It didn’t last forever.” Now, she eats less so her kids will have more. Her landlord is trying to evict her, she cannot work without childcare, and she knows her children can feel her anxiety.

“It’s scary,” she said. “I’ve got to keep a roof over their head. They know when I’m stressed out.”

The case of Kristin Jeffcoat, 24, who is raising three children in Camptonville, California, 85 miles northeast of Sacramento, also illustrates what’s at stake. When schools closed last spring, Jeffcoat, an Instacart shopper, stayed home with the kids, while her husband was laid off from landscaping work. Initially, with the CARES Act, her family got $1,500 a week in jobless benefits, and a $3,900 stimulus check. But since the federal supplemental unemployment benefit expired in July, family income has fallen nearly 80 percent, leaving them with $350 a week plus SNAP benefits.

“Income volatility is especially hard on low-income families, who lack the savings or credit to keep essential bills paid. It acts as a kind of invisible tax, measured in units as varied as late fees, toxic stress and worse school outcomes for children,” writes Jason DeParle for the New York Times.

“The lack of predictability has all kinds of negative consequences,” observes Bradley Hardy, an economist at American University. Even last spring’s aid did not reach everyone who needed it; some didn’t know they could access it, for example, and the CARES act intentionally excluded undocumented workers, including children and spouses of undocumented residents who were US citizens. Even among those eligible for stimulus checks, about 30 percent failed to receive them, the Columbia researchers estimate.

These are, to be sure, very scary times. But some pieces of what we need are obvious. And, right now, that includes relief for families who should not be made to needlessly suffer due to a pandemic they did nothing to create.—Carole Levine