Reimagining the Future After a Crisis: Falling Short, Winning Big, Challenging Norms, and Enacting Change

April 9, 2021 @ 10:30 pm
By Sonia Huq

In this post for our special series on social work in times of crisis, the Center on Poverty and Social Policy (CPSP) shares lessons learned and some new directions and priorities for its current and post-COVID research agenda. CPSP produces cutting-edge research to advance our understanding of poverty and the role of social policy in reducing poverty and promoting opportunity, economic security, and individual and family wellbeing in New York City and the United States. SEE ALSO: CPSP Co-Director Chris Wimer’s essay: “Enact Fundamental Changes to Address Poverty.”

A pandemic with unprecedented loss of life… An economic and health crisis that shut down a nation…Widening racial inequities and social unrest…A contentious presidential election and the violent aftermath.

When reflecting on the multiple crises of the last year, it is not surprising that many will call 2020 a lost year. However, periods of turmoil often end with paradigm shifts such as a reframing of healthcare as a public good and low-wage workers as frontline and essential workers. We discovered our schools and social programs serve wider functions in society than previously thought.

At the Center on Poverty and Social Policy, we asked: Did our social support programs work in crisis? What policies kept poverty rates from spiking? What is the price of inaction during a pandemic?

Forecasting monthly poverty and informing pandemic policy

As unemployment systems crashed, pantry food lines grew longer, and people failed to meet rent and cover other basic needs, it was obvious that our social programs were not set up to handle a crisis of this magnitude. The pandemic created the opportunity for us, as poverty measurement experts who evaluate social policy, to make the case that policy is a powerful tool to combat poverty in a crisis.

Early on we developed a new forecasting method to help predict the impact of the crisis and found that the poverty rates in the United States could reach the highest level in over 50 years.

READ: Monthly Poverty Rates in the United States During COVID-19

READ: Forecasting Estimates of Poverty During the COVID-19 Crisis

A reporter covering our findings for The New York Times dubbed it “A gloomy prediction on how much poverty could rise.” Our analytical work forecasting a steep rise in poverty was used by legislators to make the case in Congress to advocate for a larger stimulus and to include children more equitably, showing that a failure to renew federal aid would push 4.8 million people into poverty in the new year, including 1.3 million children.

READ: Monthly Poverty to Spike After Expiration of the CARES Act Unemployment Benefits

Despite dire predictions in the case of no intervention, we used our forecasting method to project how the federal response could and eventually did blunt poverty rates, as in the case of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and its nearly $500 billion in direct income transfers. Out of the crisis, we see that investment from the federal government does greatly reduce human suffering, and we hope that our forecasting tool and monthly projections will serve policymakers to help inform their decisions.

Tracking life in New York City during COVID-19

The pandemic upended life for New Yorkers. Since March of 2020, nearly half of all New York City workers lost employment income. More than half of low-wage workers and more than half of Black and Latino workers lost employment income at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak. In partnership with Robin Hood, we were able to track some of the initial impacts through the Poverty Tracker, our longitudinal study, launched in 2012, that follows the lives of New Yorkers.

READ: Spotlight on: Life in New York City During COVID-19

Many New Yorkers struggled to access unemployment benefits, and a quarter of renters in the Poverty Tracker sample could not pay their rent at some point during the pandemic. The crisis also intensified food hardship in the city and magnified the digital divide as online schooling became the norm.

Our survey further revealed how precarious the lives of New Yorkers were pre-crisis: one in five adults and one in five children lived in poverty. The pandemic exacerbated the hardships experienced by vulnerable New Yorkers and the racial disparities within the city, but did not create them. Rebuilding New York City is necessary, but a return to the status quo is not sufficient to ensure broad economic security for New Yorkers.

Investing in children: a historical win

The United States has historically lacked guaranteed income support for children, often leaving them vulnerable to the volatility of parental employment income. The Child Tax Credit is the largest federal expenditure made to directly benefit children, but up until recently left out one-third of children—primarily the poorest—from receiving the full benefit of the program. As consensus grew to fight child poverty during the pandemic, our research on the Child Tax Credit gained traction and was cited by policymakers, child advocacy groups, and the press. Recently, as a part of President Biden’s economic recovery plan, the credit was reconfigured to be more generous and inclusive, closely resembling the child allowance of other nations. We found that all together, the package of policies included in the American Rescue Plan could cut child poverty in half in 2021.

READ: Left Behind: The One-Third of Children in Families Who Earn Too little to Get the Full Child Tax Credit

READ: The Potential Poverty Reduction Effect of the American Rescue Plan

As policymakers envision making the more generous monthly Child Tax Credit a permanent fixture of U.S. social policy, the payoffs are even greater. We conducted a cost-benefit analysis and found that child allowances are a winning investment: the initial $100 billion investment would generate $800 billion in benefits to society over time. If the pandemic has increased the political will to end child poverty in the United States, this change is a silver lining and a historical win for children.

Committing to anti-racist research and practice

We witnessed and mourned George Floyd’s death with the rest of the country and heeded the call to try to help reimagine our public institutions. In New York City, the Poverty Tracker offers a unique view into how policing impacts communities on the ground. We are also appalled at the rise of racist and violent acts. We stand against anti-Asian racial discrimination and are using our longitudinal survey to track how discrimination is impacting the Asian-American community. The pandemic also exacerbated the racial divide in housing, health outcomes, income inequality, and the deepening economic insecurity and racial inequity is unsettling.

Moved by the activism of last year, we have been rethinking our work at CPSP to tackle anti-Black racism and have committed to communicating this inequity more directly to help dismantle racist structures in public policy and to make producing anti-racist research a priority.

Enacting fundamental change to address poverty

The collective pain of 2020 has made us pay attention—to the suffering of our neighbors, friends, and strangers; to the way we are all interconnected; and to what we value as a society. In the realm of social policy we learned that providing cash during a crisis is necessary to keep people out of poverty. Some of our systems failed, but we also found political will to make huge investments through federal policy, particularly in cutting child poverty. Going forward, we will continue to urge policymakers to invest in enacting fundamental changes to address poverty.

READ: The Case for Cash Allowances for Children During Economic Crises

Sonia Huq is the communications associate for the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University.