Poverty is a policy choice. Which side are you on?

A series of anti-poverty policies and programs in response to the pandemic offers a glimpse of what is possible when we center the needs of the poor in public policy.

the Grio
By Shailly Barnes, The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis
August 11, 2021

Hundreds were arrested last week outside the Senate Hart building near Capitol Hill in nonviolent direct action to demand voting rights, an end to the filibuster, and economic rights for all. Organized by the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, the action brought together poor and low-wage workers, clergy and people of conscience, all committed to fighting for a multiracial democracy that works for everyone.

Singing the old coal worker anthem “Which Side Are You On?” marchers claimed the moral authority of a higher law that is being violated by the failures of our political system. 

Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear that just as anti-democratic policies are threatening the fabric of this nation, our democracy is in trouble so long as millions are allowed to live in poverty and near-poverty conditions, especially when lawmakers have the power to change them. As we have seen in recent months, a series of anti-poverty policies and programs in response to the pandemic have significantly impacted the number of people living below the federal poverty line. They offer a glimpse of what is possible when we center the needs of the poor in public policy. 

According to a new report from the Urban Institute, the combined effect of federal and state programs including unemployment insurance, stimulus checks, Child Tax Credit payments, and SNAP (food stamps) are projected to have reduced the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) rate from 13.9% in 2018 to 7.7% in 2021 (without them the poverty rate would have risen to 23.1%). The report shows this reduction is present across race: Black and Latinx people are projected to experience the greatest reduction in poverty through these programs, by 74% (10 million) and 67% (15 million) respectively, while the greatest reduction in raw numbers will be poor white people, down 19.2 million. 

These same programs have also had an impact on the 140 million people who are poor or low-income, defined as household income under twice the SPM threshold or just over $27,000 for one person and $60,500 for a family with two adults and two children. The report projects a drop in this population from 43% in 2018 to an estimated 36.5% in 2021 (again, the reduction is present across race). An earlier report estimated that these numbers would have swelled to nearly 150 million during the pandemic, or 45% of the nation, without these programs. 

It is critical that we pay attention to the impact of these programs on this broader population of the 140 million, because it offers a more accurate representation of the true extent of poverty and economic insecurity than the most commonly used poverty measures. The Official Poverty Measure (OPM) is based on data from 1955, and although the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) poverty threshold includes the costs of food, clothing, shelter, utilities and government assistance, it is still far too low given contemporary costs of living.

In fact, gauging the success of anti-poverty policies by only looking at the impact on people living below the threshold gives a false sense of their effectiveness and leaves millions more with little to no relief. It also perpetuates narratives that blame the poor for their poverty, rather than a rigged economic system. 

Over the past 40 years, lawmakers have made hundreds, if not more, policy decisions that have favored the wealthy and powerful, but they can make different decisions. The anti-poverty programs that have had such impact are temporary. Our lawmakers can decide to make these permanent and avoid a tragic and unnecessary backslide when they expire. This is also true of the eviction moratorium that was extended earlier this week: if it is possible to suspend evictions during a pandemic, it is possible to make evictions from any dwelling — be it a house, apartment, car or encampment — illegal at any time. If it is possible to extend rental and housing relief to pay landlords, it is also possible to control housing prices or even cancel housing payments outright. 

Policymakers can also decide to take actions that would reduce the need for poverty relief programs, such as making the minimum wage a living wage and supporting the rights of workers to bargain collectively for fair pay and benefits. 

In other words, poverty is a policy choice. We know there are solutions to the injustices of our economic system and that lawmakers can implement them not only in pandemic times, but all times. To make that decision, the only question they need to answer is the one we asked during last week’s demonstration: Which side are you on? 

Shailly Barnes is the Policy Director of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and the Kairos Center for Rights, Religions and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary. She has a background in law, economics and human rights and has spent more than 15 years working with and for poor and dispossessed communities. 

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is the President & Senior Lecturer of Repairers of the Breach, Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival; Bishop with The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries; Visiting Professor at Union Theological Seminary; Pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and the author of four books: We Are Called To Be A Movement; Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing; The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and The Rise of a New Justice Movement; and Forward Together: A Moral Message For The Nation.

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is the Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice and Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. She is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church and author of Always with Us?: What Jesus Really Said about the Poor.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)