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The future of poverty in Joe Biden’s America

Is the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 bill signed into law Thursday by President Joe Biden about more than the pandemic?

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President Joe Biden signs the American Rescue Plan, a coronavirus relief package, in the Oval Office of the White House on Thursday, March 11, 2021, in Washington.

Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

President Joe Biden will deliver a prime-time address Thursday night on the year that’s passed since the pandemic-induced shutdown began. “I’m going to talk,” he said, per The Associated Press, “about what comes next.” The speech will come just hours after Biden officially signed the first legislative victory of his administration: A $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus package that includes provisions to drastically reduce poverty — at least in the short-term. 

The legislation will provide $1,400 stimulus checks to Americans below a certain income threshold — the third round of such payments, and the largest to date. But the legislation goes much further than direct deposits, with pandemic-focused funding for vaccines and testing as well as additional economic assistance, like raising the child tax credit and expanding unemployment benefits. “The plan is one of the largest federal responses to a downturn Congress has enacted,” reports The Washington Post, “and economists estimate it will boost growth this year to the highest level in decades and reduce the number of Americans living in poverty by a third.” Some, like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., have hailed it as “the biggest package of relief since the New Deal.”

Indeed, “multiple studies,” The Washington Post reports, agree that the bill will “substantially lower poverty” — but only in 2021. Whether the “American Rescue Plan” can achieve New Deal-like immortality by yielding lasting change to America’s social safety net is less clear, though some Democrats hope it’s at least the beginning. 

Biden unveiled the original stimulus plan on Jan. 14, six days before his inauguration. Its anti-poverty initiatives, like raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, were ambitious for a man who supported the Clinton administration’s 1996 welfare reform bill. Back then, per Politico, Biden declared that, “The culture of welfare must be replaced with the culture of work.” And yet, the Politico story adds, “the first piece of major legislation Biden (signed) as president represents the largest expansion of the welfare state in decades. It even undoes some of the reforms Biden, the senator, helped enact.” Writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer shortly after Biden was declared the winner of the November 2020 election, Alfred Lubrano noted how America’s approach to poverty could change under Biden’s administration. “The safety net that stretches beneath Americans living in poverty will see more mending and less rending as presidents change,” he predicted.

The Washington Post framed Biden’s original proposal as “an early test of his ability to steer the nation out of a pandemic disaster and rapidly deteriorating economy — and his promise to unite a divided Congress.” On the second count, Biden failed. He met with Senate Republicans, who offered a counter-proposal, but Biden was unable to convince a single Republican in either the House or the Senate to vote yes. Utah Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney were especially adamant about their opposition, with Lee calling the legislation a “bloated, wasteful bill” and Romney calling it a “clunker” in the Wall Street Journal

Even some members of Biden’s own party objected early. Reps. Cori Bush, D-Mo., and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., considered the $1,400 checks a broken promise when Biden had campaigned on $2,000 checks. (Biden says he considers the $1,400 checks, combined with the $600 checks passed in December, to be fulfilling his promise.) The minimum wage hike also failed in the Senate, with progressive Democrats pitted against their centrist counterparts. And some have argued that the bill doesn’t go far enough. The New York Times editorial board urged that the legislation last as long as the emergency at hand, as did a group of 50 progressive House Democrats

Still, most of them support the legislation now, with good reason. A recent Politico/Morning Consult poll showed 75% of voters approve of the stimulus bill — including 59% of Republicans. And even if those particular numbers are high, polls have generally been favorable. Those Democrats who have criticized the bill’s shortcoming seem, for now, to have adopted the point of view of The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer: “It should have had more generous unemployment and a long-overdue minimum wage increase,” he tweeted Saturday, “but this is going to help a lot of people.”

With this short-term solution to poverty signed into law, Democrats interested in reducing poverty over the long term could soon push for some of the bill’s provisions — like the enhanced tax credits — to extend beyond 2021. “Many liberals hope these policies can be made permanent so this income boost does not disappear in 2022,” per The Washington Post

“If these programs do stick around, it raises questions about whether Democrats should be paying for them and not treating them like they are emergency relief. But advocates on the left point out that if America’s safety net were better, not as many people would have fallen into such a difficult situation during the pandemic and the nation would not need as large of a response.”

Some have already begun down that path. As the Post’s Erica Werner observed, Democrats once touted the bill as a necessary response to a calamitous, rare situation. “But then,” she wrote, “the language began to shift to something much different: an anti-poverty measure with few precedents in U.S. history.” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., Werner’s story noted, claimed “We are going to change lives with this legislation”; Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., described the bill as “an ideological revolution on behalf of justice,” Werner added. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called it potentially more consequential than the Affordable Care Act. “The Democrats’ comments seemed to confirm — even endorse — GOP complaints that the sprawling bill does more to address long-held liberal priorities,” Werner continued, “than attack the twin economic and health care crises brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.”

But it does, foremost, address the pandemic. COVID-19, per Politico, is the nexus of this opportunity for Democrats; it’s a major component of what brought Biden to a new position on America’s safety net. “Part of Biden’s evolution on welfare spending is tied to the pandemic and the massive economic hole that it has caused,” the authors wrote. “But,” they admit, “another part of it reflects the evolution the Democratic Party has undergone in recent years. Once fearful of race-baiting rhetoric on supposedly lazy ‘welfare queens,’ the party now is largely unapologetic about spending money to strengthen the social safety net.”

Perhaps Biden will offer some added clarity on his administration’s long-term anti-poverty goals during Thursday night’s speech, or perhaps he’ll focus more on celebrating what’s already been done. Regardless, the American Rescue Plan marks a milestone in the country’s approach to poverty, whether its provisions — or its spirit — last or not.

Vox senior correspondent Dylan Matthews, rather than follow Schumer’s lead and compare the American Rescue Plan to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, instead opted for an (extensive) comparison to Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. “Biden has begun a second war on poverty,” he wrote, “and he has a short window in which to keep waging it.