New Year, Yet Poverty Remains an Issue for Americans

Authors: Tonantzin Juarez, MS & Jessica McCann, MPH

Although January is the start of a new year, expenses during the holiday season, coupled with lower temperatures and increased utility bills, place additional stress on families. January is also Poverty Awareness Month, a month-long initiative to raise awareness and call attention to the growth of poverty in America. Currently there are 37 million Americans living under the poverty line. The pandemic exacerbated poverty and worsened the conditions of those who were already low income. In addition, child poverty is on the rise with 11 million children currently living in poverty. Poverty doesn’t impact everyone equally, as Black Americans make up 44% of those experiencing one generation of poverty. Furthermore,  one of every three African American children and one of every four Latino children live in poverty, which is two times higher than the rate for white children. For this blog, the policy team wants to highlight how poverty impacts at-risk communities and make policy recommendations that can help alleviate financial stress to them.

Poverty in America
The Pew Research Center reported that in 2022, one in four U.S. parents say they struggled to afford food or housing, 24% stated they struggled to pay for health care, and 20% who needed child care reported not always being able to afford it.  Moreover, these statistics disproportionately impact Black, Hispanic and American Indian and Alaska Native families. The rise in cost of gas, food, housing, health care, as well as medications and supplies, deepen the health and economic inequities that Americans experience, making them more vulnerable to poverty and financial hardship while intensifying ongoing health issues and potentially creating new ones. Furthermore, according to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey conducted in June 2022, an estimated 13.7 million Americans reported being behind on rent or mortgage payments, an increase of 7%  from April of that same year.  About four in ten Black parents (39%) reported struggling to pay their rent or mortgage during 2022.

Here we highlight five key policy recommendations for addressing poverty in America, including: (1) Reinstate Tax Child Credit, (2) Fund Federal Benefits Addressing Food Insecurity, (3) Increase 2024 WIC Budget, (4) Pass the Energy Poverty Prevention & Accountability Act, and (5) Promote the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

Bring Back Child Tax Credit
It is imperative that both Republicans and Democrats work together in re-implementing the Child Tax Credit. Reintroducing this popular policy currently has the support of  75% of voters, including 64% of Republicans. Originally part of the American Rescue Plan, the Child Tax Credit increased payments by up to $1,600 monthly, resulting in improving child poverty by bringing it to its lowest level ever recorded. It helped pull  2.9 million children out of poverty, in addition to providing  crucial aid to families during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although some of the backlash around this measure revolved around how the extra money was being used, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 90% of families spent the money on food, shelter, and school supplies for their children.

Bring Back Federal Benefits Addressing Food Insecurity
Food insecurity is on the rise due to the expiration of federal benefits that were subsidizing nutrition programs during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the largest federal nutrition assistance program providing benefits to eligible low-income individuals and families via the Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card. The Pandemic EBT Program was vital in preventing food insecurity in families during periods of school closures due to COVID-19. Food insufficiency was lower in states that implemented Pandemic EBT benefits than in states that did not.  The program could be more useful in addressing food insecurity in families during the summer months, when students do not have access to school meals.

Approve WIC Budget Increase for 2024
The Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program is a long-standing federal program providing special supplemental nutrition support for women, infants and children. Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released updated income eligibility guidelines in April of 2023, unfortunately, not a lot of families know they are either eligible for this program and/or where to enroll. It is imperative that state agencies improve communication on eligibility and enrollment for these assistance programs. The White House has proposed a $615 million budget increase for WIC in 2024, but experts warn this could still fall short with meeting growing demand. It is imperative that the budget increase is approved; otherwise state programs may be forced to place new enrollees on waitlists or cut benefits for existing recipients. 

Pass the Energy Poverty Prevention & Accountability Act
With winter around the corner, low-income households will be experiencing energy poverty, which happens when individuals and families are unable to afford basic heating, electricity and gas needs. Specifically households composed of Black, Indigenous, and people of color are disproportionately impacted. In December of 2023, the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held a legislative session on H.R. 5482 – the Energy Poverty Prevention and Accountability Act of 2023. This specific bill will help prevent energy poverty by forcing reviews of Federal energy laws and regulations, proposed energy projects, and state renewable energy portfolio standards so that equal access exists for at-risk communities including minority, low-income, and rural communities. Passing this bill will be the first step in ensuring low-income households are taken into account in the development of energy related measures that can potentially impact their security in this area.

Inform Families of LIHEAP Eligibility
The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) federal program provides assistance to reduce the costs associated with home energy bills, weatherization, energy crises and energy related home repairs. In October 2023 the Biden-Harris Administration announced the release of $3.7 billion of funding to support LIHEAP, specifically the programs aiding struggling families with growing electricity bills during the winter and summer months. To accompany this new funding, the program made available a website to help families identify their eligibility for LIHEAP assistance. In addition to this tool, the program should also consider ways to navigate families in need to LIHEAP assistance. The website alone may not be accessible to families that could most benefit from eligibility when we consider that 22% of low-income households with children do not have home internet access.

Looking Ahead
Millions of Americans are impacted by poverty in the United States, and Black, Latino, and American Indian and Alaska Native populations are disproportionately affected. While these recommendations are an important first step in alleviating financial stress on many Americans during the new year, it is also necessary to examine the systems that perpetuate racial and ethnic injustices. Understanding and considering the role historic racism has played in today’s economic disparities is key to tailoring reforms and policies that reduce these disparities.