US Poverty Rates Reach Pandemic High in March

This story is part of WTTW’s Firsthand initiative exploring poverty in Chicago.

The U.S. poverty rate last month reached its highest point during the pandemic at 11.7%, according to researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of Notre Dame who are using monthly census data to capture the financial impact of the coronavirus in real time.

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“The striking feature of the pandemic is that the effect on poverty has been very uneven over time and across people,” said Bruce Meyer, a professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy who is part of the team researching the pandemic’s impact on poverty in the U.S.

The research also shows that poverty is highest among the least educated: people with a high school education, at most, had a poverty rate of 22.2% in March. During the same month, Black Americans saw a poverty rate of 21.2% and child poverty reached a pandemic high of 17.4%.

At the beginning of the pandemic last spring, poverty rates fell because of the unprecedented financial support the government provided to residents, Meyer said. “As incomes kept falling and government aid disappeared, then poverty rates started to rise,” he said.

The country is just at the beginning of its economic recovery, said Audra Wilson, the president and CEO of the Shriver Center on Poverty Law. The long-term implications of the pandemic on poverty remain to be seen, she said. 

“The scary part though as an advocate is people think because the vaccine now is more widely available, that businesses are beginning to open up and life is beginning to normalize, whatever that new normal is, is that we are out of the woods, but not realizing that there has been a cumulative effect or impact of the pandemic and so we’re really still not seeing just the full effect of that until now,” Wilson said. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Marillac St. Vincent Family Service food programs, including a homebound delivery program to older residents on the West Side, have increased. Hilary Waldron, director of senior services, says COVID-19 has made everything more challenging — and expensive.

“I think for seniors trying to find money for hand sanitizer, masks, paper towels, all that stuff, if you could even find it, right, especially in the beginning … It’s expensive. That stuff is not free,” Waldron said. “I think one of the challenges of COVID was that everyone was under stress. No one group could say, ‘I can carry your burden for you,’ because everybody was carrying an additional burden. These informal networks and these ways that we have helped each other in the past were under an extreme amount of stress.”

The poverty figures for March came out just before the most recent aid from the American Rescue Plan was distributed. 

“I suspect that poverty will fall as a result of the most recent legislation, the rescue plan,” Meyer said. “Before those funds came in a lot of people were having difficulty paying for rent and paying for food, had their incomes fall quite sharply.”

Wilson hopes the country will use this opportunity to make parts of the American Rescue Act permanent.  

“This is a perfect opportunity to really make some meaningful investments and some changes that can break these cycles,” Wilson said. “One thing that we see is that the American Recovery Act is extraordinarily important, because it really goes to the core of income support for lower wage workers, and how valuable, or invaluable, quite frankly, that can be.”

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