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President Biden’s economic relief package could cut childhood poverty in half — but it’s only temporary

One public policy and poverty expert called it “the most aggressive proposal by an American president on behalf of families in poverty in decades.”

President Joe Biden signs an executive order after speaking during an event on his administration's COVID-19 response with Vice President Kamala Harris in the State Dining Room of the White House on Thursday.
President Joe Biden signs an executive order after speaking during an event on his administration's COVID-19 response with Vice President Kamala Harris in the State Dining Room of the White House on Thursday.Read moreAl Drago / Abaca Press

President Joe Biden has announced a lofty goal in the opening days of his administration: Cut the rate of childhood poverty in half.

His proposed policies would slash what’s known as the supplemental poverty rate of all U.S. children from 14% to about 8%, according to analysts at Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy. (Considered more accurate than the official U.S. poverty rate, the supplemental rate takes into account the benefits a family receives, such as food stamps, as well as a family’s expenses such as health care.)

In Pennsylvania, the rate would drop from nearly 14% to about 8%; in New Jersey, it would fall from a little more than 14% to almost 10%, according to Columbia figures.

Far-reaching and broadly divergent from Trump administration policies, Biden’s proposals would increase benefits for food stamps and school meals programs, and offer cash to strapped families, among other recommendations.

» READ MORE: How America’s approach to poverty could change in a Biden administration, Congress willing

As sweeping as the Biden vision is, it’s viewed as a stopgap measure meant to help Americans through the economic ravages of the pandemic. But some antipoverty advocates are hopeful that the ideas — along with the money to fund them — will last into the future.

“This is the most aggressive proposal by an American president on behalf of families in poverty in decades,” said Luke Shaefer, a professor of public policy and poverty expert at the University of Michigan. “It could be a turning point.”

Kathy Fisher, policy director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, agreed: “It’s significant and a targeted way to reach those most in need.”

On Friday, Biden signed executive orders that would ask the Department of Agriculture to increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, commonly called food stamps, by 15% to 20% for a family of four. This would benefit about 12 million families, according to the White House.

The order also would provide extra money to families to pay for the meals children would have gotten free at school had the pandemic not compelled them to learn virtually from home. Some estimates are that a family with three children would receive an extra $100 every two months.

Reacting to the executive orders, Joel Berg, CEO of the nationwide nonprofit Hunger Free America, called them “commonsense moves” that will address the nation’s joint crises in hunger and public health. He added that they “represent the most significant administrative actions by the federal government to fight domestic hunger in modern times. This action is both smart and compassionate.”

These latest recommendations augment what Biden had proposed as a candidate to help those in poverty, specifically children. Those proposals are based on previous legislation proposed by Democrats in Congress in 2017 and 2019.

Taken together, the new policy measures could result in five million children rising out of poverty, Fisher said.

As part of his nearly $2 trillion pandemic-relief plan, Biden has said he would offer an additional round of economic-impact payments through COVID-19 relief funding worth $1,400 per eligible adult and child recipient.

» READ MORE: Biden unveils a $1.9 trillion plan to stem the coronavirus and steady the economy

He would extend current unemployment insurance expansions through the end of September, with an increase in a weekly national supplement from $300 to $400.

Expanded child tax credit

Most significant if that Biden would expand the child tax credit (CTC) that currently offers as much as $2,000 a year for middle-class families, but little for those in poverty.

In essence, the way the plan has traditionally been aligned, people are penalized for being poor, said Shaefer. Households must currently earn at least $2,500 annually to get the credit. This means that people in poverty who don’t make that much wouldn’t be eligible.

Under Biden’s plan, the size of the child credit would increase, and it would become fully available to all those in poverty, regardless of income. The way it would work is that benefits would be $3,000 a year per child ages 6 to 17. They would be $3,600 a year per child from newborn to age 5. And Biden would make the payments monthly, instead of a lump sum as it is now, to aid in family budgeting.

Biden would also expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for the remainder of the year. His plan would raise the maximum credit for adults without children from $530 to nearly $1,500, and raise the income limit for the credit from $16,000 to about $21,000.

That the Biden administration is aiming its sights on reducing childhood poverty is “fantastic,” said Dan Taylor, a pediatrician at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in North Philadelphia, where the childhood poverty rate can reach 33%.

“It’s scientifically proven that extending SNAP and increasing EITC works to help families with day-to-day poverty and food insecurity,” the lack of enough money to buy food to sustain a healthy life. The scars of childhood food insecurity last into adulthood, Taylor said.

» READ MORE: How low-income people are spending their $600 pandemic stimulus payments

Even one year helps

While some experts lament that Biden’s measures may be in effect for only a year, they still are vital steps, according to Joan Maya Mazelis, a sociologist at Rutgers University-Camden.

“Even one year can make a difference,” she said, explaining that cash received by a family in poverty can be used to pay down debt.

It’s also true that if the proposals are passed, there’s a chance they’ll develop staying power and become harder to undo, Mazelis said.

Beyond that, reducing poverty dramatically among children for a single year would prove to Americans what’s possible in a short time, said Indivar Dutta-Gupta, co-executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.

Mazelis agreed: “Even if the president can’t get all these proposals through Congress, he’s setting a different tone from the other administration. Biden is saying the poor are us, citizens of this country we have to take care of.”

During the Trump administration, the prevailing notion was that those in poverty are “malingerers taking advantage of the system,” said Robert Fullilove, professor of socio-medical sciences and dean of community and minority affairs at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. “The thinking was average Americans were being scammed by welfare cheats in housing projects.” Trump made four different efforts to cut or curtail SNAP benefits, even when Republicans supported them.

While people are lauding Biden, it’s important to note that America’s poverty problems will not simply disappear, said Mariana Chilton, professor at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health and director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities.

“This doesn’t mean the Biden administration is ending poverty,” she said. “SNAP is still inadequate for paying the true cost of healthy food.

“The Biden package is a start. It helps in the short term — it buys some time for families. Let’s hope the Biden-Harris administration will generate more transformative solutions for the long term.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at