Spotlight Exclusives

The Top Poverty and Opportunity Stories of 2022

Spotlight Staff Spotlight Staff, posted on

As the nation slowly continued to navigate its way out of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2022 brought many hopeful signs for low-income Americans looking for pathways into opportunity. Pandemic relief programs — particularly the expanded Child Tax Credit — reduced poverty rates dramatically in 2021, the Census Bureau found. The poverty rate fell to 7.8 percent, down from 9.2 percent the previous year, and the share of children in poverty hit a record low of 5.2 percent, down 4.5 percentage points from 2020.

But as 2023 approaches, many of those aid programs have expired and a debate looms for the new Congress on which, if any, to extend. American saw further evidence in 2022 that policy choices can dramatically reduce poverty — but those choices require difficult political choices and bipartisan compromise, particularly with the advent of another era of divided government.

Spotlight hopes to serve as a safe and constructive space for these crucial debates in coming months, whether they focus on renewing the expanded Child Tax Credit, federal paid leave, the affordable childcare crisis, or the devastating impact of the pandemic on the nation’s young people, particularly those already facing economic and familial challenges.

For now, we offer a round-up of 5 stories key stories from the year that is coming to an end.

The expanded Child Tax Credit

As part of the American Rescue Plan, the expanded Child Tax Credit temporarily brought three important changes to the existing CTC:

  • It increased the maximum credit to $3,600 for children under age 6 and $3,000 for those ages 6 through 17. Heads of households earning up to $112,500 a year and married couples making up to $150,000 were eligible for the full amount.
  • It made the credit fully refundable so the lowest-income families could qualify.
  • It sent half the credit to families in monthly installments of up to $300 from July through December last year to help them cover expenses. They could claim the other half on their 2021 tax returns.

More than 36 million families with more than 61 million kids received monthly payments, which totaled more than $93 billion, according to the Internal Revenue Service.

The expanded CTC expired at the end of 2021, however, when the Biden administration could not forge agreement within the narrow Senate Democratic majority, particularly on the issue of whether more work requirements should be built into the policy.

Efforts to revive the CTC during the lame-duck session were unsuccessful, so the debate is expected to continue next year. Key Senate players are Sens. Michael Bennet (Colorado), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Cory Booker (N.J.), and Raphael Warnock (Georgia) on the Democratic side and Sens. Mitt Romney (Utah), Marco Rubio (Florida), and Chuck Grassley (Iowa) for Republicans. Romney, along with Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.) and Steve Daines (Montana) crafted a GOP alternative this past summer.

Bipartisan progress in midterm ballot measures

Voters in 37 states voted on 132 statewide ballot measures in the November midterm elections, a number of which impact economic opportunity issues such as Medicaid expansion and raising the minimum wage in both red and blue states. Some of the key results in the poverty and opportunity space:

  • Medicaid expansion: In South Dakota, voters approved an initiativethat would extend coverage to over 40,000 people in the state, raising the income cutoff from $10,590 a year to about $32,000. South Dakota was one of the 12 states that have not expanded Medicaid since the Affordable Care Act increased how many low-income Americans could qualify.
  • Minimum wage: While Congress hasn’t raised the federal minimum wage since 2009, voters in Nevada and Nebraskaapproved minimum wage hikes in their states. The Nevada measure raises the minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2024, while the Nebraska initiative increases it to $15 by 2026.
  • Free school lunches: In Colorado, voters easily approved a propositionto create a program that would offer free meals to all public-school students and help schools pay for them.
  • Early childhood education: New Mexicovoters passed a ballot measure that makes the state the first in the country to guarantee a constitutional right to early childhood education.

Historic reduction in child poverty

The New York Times, using a new data analysis by Child Trends, reported in September that child poverty has been reduced by a stunning 59 percent since 1993 as a result of federal aid programs.

Wrote Jason DeParle of The Times: “For a generation or more, America’s high levels of child poverty set it apart from other rich nations, leaving millions of young people lacking support as basic as food and shelter amid mounting evidence that early hardship leaves children poorer, sicker, and less educated as adults. But with little public notice and accelerating speed, America’s children have become much less poor.”

The report triggered a vigorous debate within the poverty and opportunity community about some of the methodology of the analysis, particularly whether other factors — such as moving low-income Americans into work and the impact of a strong economy in general — were given sufficient weight.

Spotlight, with the support of the Esther A. and Joseph Klingenstein Fund and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, hosted a webinar in November featuring leading researchers and analysts from across the ideological spectrum discussing the Child Trends analysis and potential consensus on policy choices to reduce child poverty going forward.

White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health

The White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health held in late September was historic just by taking place; it was the first White House conference on hunger since the one held in 1969 when Richard Nixon was president. The Biden administration announced a plan to end hunger in the U.S. by 2030 and anti-hunger advocates came out of the conference with new momentum. But questions remained as to whether the conclave would result in concrete achievements, as the 1969 conference did, leading to the creation of SNAP and other anti-hunger programs.

One major follow-through by the White House was celebrated by the anti-hunger community: The announcement by the Department of Agriculture last month proposing changes to the food package for participants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) that would provide a higher percentage of fruits, vegetables, and other healthy food.

Dropping test scores and mental health issues for already vulnerable children

One of the most urgent tasks for policymakers in the years to come will be finding ways to support students impacted by the pandemic’s school closures and shifts to online learning. The past year offered grim evidence of the damage done: national test results released in September showed the performance of 9-year-olds in math and reading dropping to the levels from two decades ago. For the first time since the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests began tracking student achievement in the 1970s, 9-year-olds lost ground in math, and scores in reading fell by the largest margin in more than 30 years.

As a New York Times analysis pointed out, “the declines spanned almost all races and income levels and were markedly worse for the lowest-performing students. While top performers in the 90th percentile showed a modest drop — three points in math — students in the bottom 10th percentile dropped by 12 points in math, four times the impact.”

Similarly, the nation faces a mental health crisis among students who lost the better part of two years of normal education due to the pandemic. Nationally, adolescent depression and anxiety levels have surged in the wake of COVID-19, and again, students in families already facing economic challenges have been impacted the most. As the Washington Post wrote: “More than 75 percent of schools surveyed in spring said their teachers and staff have voiced concerns about student depression, anxiety and trauma, according to federal data. Nearly as many schools cited a jump in the number of students seeking mental health services.”

« Back to Spotlight Exclusives