By Adam Cancryn
President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House August 29, 2023 in Washington. | Win McNamee/Getty Images
President Joe Biden’s war on poverty is unraveling fast.
Just two years after orchestrating the largest expansion of the U.S. safety net in a half-century, Biden’s $2 trillion bet that big-government policies could vastly improve life for the poorest Americans is coming to a close.
The historic injection of pandemic-era aid was, by many measures, a clear success. And it may never happen again.
New data released Tuesday by the Census Bureau found that the poverty rate spiked to 12.4 percent in 2022, from 7.8 percent in the prior year, as an array of enhanced federal benefits meant to help families afford food, housing and other basic needs expired one after another. The poverty rate for children alone also hit 12.4 percent, more than doubling from 5.2 percent in 2021.
The numbers represent a sharp reversal from a year earlier and an erasure of the gains made during the pandemic, when the passage of Biden’s American Rescue Plan drove the share of people in poverty to the lowest level on record, outpacing a broader economic recovery that was still in its shaky initial stages.
That milestone punctuated an early Biden presidency that, at one point, evoked comparisons to Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson in the size of its societal ambitions. But White House aspirations of permanently enlarging the social safety net were instead overtaken by fears of rising inflation and political blowback. It has since mostly abandoned those goals, embracing a scaled-down “Bidenomics” agenda centered on easing costs and slashing government debt.
But in polling — and in their own bank account balances — most voters just aren’t feeling it. The disconnect has jeopardized Biden’s central election message, worrying allies who warn that there’s little benefit to running on improvements compared to four years ago if voters only care about how much more financially stable they felt two years ago.
“People,” Lake said, “profoundly feel like they haven’t caught up.”
In a blog post published ahead of the new Census numbers, the Council of Economic Advisers acknowledged that the shrinking Covid safety net would drive the benchmark supplemental poverty rate, a holistic measure that takes into account various types of government aid, “significantly higher than in 2021.” But it argued the administration had succeeded in laying the foundation for a stronger-than-expected economic recovery.
The CEA also noted that much of the initial drop in poverty was driven by the expansion of the child tax credit, which increased payments for eligible low-income families to as much as $3,600 per month. Biden officials pushed hard to make that program permanent but couldn’t overcome opposition from centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who argued the government’s spending was stoking inflation.
Soaring inflation also dampened enthusiasm in parts of the Democratic Party for other safety net initiatives, forcing Biden to jettison plans to expand affordable child care and impose paid leave benefits. More than a dozen Covid-era emergency programs have since expired with little resistance. Others — including a massive grant program that kept the child care industry afloat — will run out within the coming months.