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The U.S. is cutting poverty in half. Shame on us for not doing this sooner. | Will Bunch

A surge in COVID-19-inspired initiatives will reduce Americans in poverty by a whopping 20 million people. Why didn't this happen sooner?

Students Arelyanna, 3, and Javier, 2, play with their toy cars to wrap up the day at Cuidando Los Ninos in Albuquerque, N.M. The charity provides housing, child care and financial counseling for mothers, all of whom will benefit from expanded Child Tax Credit payments that will start flowing in July to roughly 39 million households.
Students Arelyanna, 3, and Javier, 2, play with their toy cars to wrap up the day at Cuidando Los Ninos in Albuquerque, N.M. The charity provides housing, child care and financial counseling for mothers, all of whom will benefit from expanded Child Tax Credit payments that will start flowing in July to roughly 39 million households.Read moreSusan Montoya Bryan / AP

The myth of “the welfare queen” that flourished under Ronald Reagan, powered 40 years of Republican election victories and guided government policy as America largely dismantled its social safety net, is finally dead. Or at least on life support.

Instead, the nation is finally learning that the real beneficiaries of government aid are women like New Hampshire’s Christina Darling, who is spending her monthly checks for $550 a month in the new expanded child tax credit program on things like buying more fresh produce for her two kids. Her new monetary lifeline isn’t leading to fur coats or a Cadillac — the stuff of GOP campaign trail fantasy for decades — but it is helping make payments on the modest car that the 31-year-old bought to take the children safely to day care. Darling told the Associated Press she might even occasionally hire a babysitter — to get more involved in civic life and run for her city’s council.

“The additional money does help alleviate the pressure,” another New Hampshire beneficiary of the program — 29-year-old Brianne Walker, a mother of three who quit a job to raise her two siblings after her mom died from a drug overdose and began receiving $800 a month this summer — told the AP. The news service talked to parents across the nation about the new tax credit program — part of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill signed by President Biden, which expanded the benefits and turned it from a more complicated year-end tax filing to the monthly checks — and found the payments were going to rent, paying off debt, or putting more food on the table, and giving beleaguered working-class folks a chance to breathe.

One study suggested that the new, expanded tax credits — going out to more than 35 million households with children — could reduce child poverty in America by 45%. That’s remarkable, and it’s just part of a broader trend as the shock of the global pandemic forced the government to take the economic struggles of the poor and the lower middle class more seriously than any time since Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty in the mid-1960s.

A New York Times report last week looked at the wider array of expanded safety programs that were enacted since early 2020 to respond to the economic shocks of the coronavirus outbreak — one-time government stimulus checks, expanded unemployment benefits, and increased food stamps — and the impact was staggering. Experts cited by the Times found that some 20 million Americans rose out of poverty since 2018, which would essentially cut the rate of those the government classifies as poor in half, now at the lowest level since Washington began keeping track.

“Wow — these are stunning findings,” Bob Greenstein, a veteran anti-poverty expert now with the Brookings Institution, told the newspaper. That sums up the almost giddy mood of experts who hadn’t seen such a rapid policy shift in their lifetimes. For a brief, shining moment in the 1960s, defeating poverty had seemed like the final frontier for a nation that had helped win World War II and was sending astronauts to the moon — and LBJ’s Great Society did make a significant dent for a few years before the backlash. White resentment politics that played up any reports of abuse and ignored the public good had won the day by the 1980s.

Those same forces of reaction are still out there, still lurking. The vast web of conservative think tanks created amid the anti-welfare backlash is still arguing — with little or no evidence — that these programs discourage able-bodied people from working, the great immoral panic of capitalism. The Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector told the Times, “You want policies that encourage work and marriage, not undermine it” — but that just seems totally bass-ackward. Affording child care or a working automobile actually helps people find jobs, and what historically has been more destructive to marriage than poverty?

» READ MORE: 'Poor' is a 4-letter word in U.S. politics. These activists are fighting to change that | Will Bunch

That’s why it’s so critical that the public keeps hearing these success stories — like Walker and Darling or 24-year-old Jessica Moore of St. Louis, who lost her job as a banquet server with the pandemic but has used her stimulus checks and extended unemployment benefits to buy a car and enroll in community college, where she’s studying to become an emergency medical technician. In other words, a job. Are you listening, Heritage Foundation?

Whoever controls this narrative between now and the 2022 midterm elections is going to control the future of America’s middle class, which has been shrinking for generations. Even progressives agree that a lot of the 2020-21 government aid was emergency relief that won’t be continued, but the last 17 months have also taught us how a real safety net can improve daily life, especially for children who need to start out life with a fair shot.

Several key decisions loom, including whether to make the expanded child tax credit permanent but also an array of pro-family programs proposed by the Biden administration that would greatly expand child care — probably the most pro-job, anti-poverty measure in the toolbox — and make community college tuition-free, and much more. Conservatives will argue that America can’t afford this, and to be sure it wasn’t cheap to so sharply reduce the poverty rate. It’s estimated that — largely because of the one-off payments made necessary by the pandemic — spending on the basic social safety net quadrupled to $1 trillion.

The costs of the proposals forward are not as great, and there’s a powerful case — given the improvement these programs have made in people’s lives, and, thus, in a civil society — that how can we afford not to do this? Remember, we’re talking about the United States of America, the nation that just spent $2.26 trillion on an almost “forever war” in Afghanistan that after its first year or two seemed to accomplish little or nothing.

Regardless of which party is in power, the White House and Congress never ask, “Can we afford it?” as they constantly expand the Pentagon budget to an astronomical $750 billion a year, or more than the next 11 biggest nations combined. Just a modest rightsizing of what still would be the world’s most powerful military would free up hundreds of billions of dollars to rebuild America’s middle class. So would simply restoring tax rates on our uber-profitable corporations and the billionaires who run them back to the historically low level those rates were at in 2017 (or, heaven forbid, the 50% top marginal tax rate that existed *after* Reagan’s popular 1981 tax cut).

Given the obscene space program funding fortunes accumulated by the likes of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos or Walmart’s Walton family — employers where low-wage workers often already get government benefits like food stamps to make ends meet — even a wealth tax of the kind proposed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren deserves a debate, in the name of restoring balance to a U.S. society that’s spent 40 years careening off the rails.

It’s impossible, frankly, not to look at America’s struggling working-class moms finally putting some greens on the dinner table or driving off to community college and wonder why this hasn’t been a top priority — as opposed to new fighter jets and propping up the U.S. yacht industry. The news that the United States is cutting poverty in half — at least for now, if the jackals can be held at bay — is, on one hand, a feel-good story, yet in another way, it’s a deeply troubling one. Because the world’s richest nation had the power and the ability to do this years ago. The fact that we didn’t should be a moment of national shame and reflection.

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