From childhood on, I’ve spent my life haunted by the ghost of poverty.
A myth exists in America that financial well-being follows if we just work hard and make good choices. But it’s not that simple. At some point, most of us face unforeseen obstacles — from physical or mental health challenges to lost jobs, economic downturns, and natural disasters.
Along with low wages and other structural causes of poverty, that puts financial well-being out of reach for about 140 millionpeople in this country, the Poor People’s Campaign estimates.
The reality of poverty isn’t even close to the stereotype propagated by politicians who want only to fund the military and subsidize the rich while cutting everything else. This isn’t a lifestyle one chooses by being lazy and getting fat off some mythical government largesse.
For many of us, poverty means working multiple low-wage jobs and still being short on rent, child care, food, or the energy bill. Poverty means you don’t have stable transportation and live in fear of anyone in your family needing health care.
It means your children go without good winter boots or new clothes because you need the lights to stay on. It means there’s no time or money for anything beyond the scrape of daily life — no waterparks, no road trips, no relief.
People don’t choose this lifestyle. It’s created by policymakers who prioritize corporate profit and bloated military spending over investing in families in this country. Yet they expect poor people to be the ones who feel ashamed.
At one point I was living the American Dream. I’d been a successful chef, even bought a house at 23. But the 2008 collapse flipped my mortgage upside down, and the single investment I’d been able to make for my future crumbled.
A few years later, after the birth of my child, I was cast back into the same poverty I’d grown up with. Programs like Medicaid, SNAP, and WIC — the program to support women, infants, and children — kept our heads above water while I returned to university to complete an unfinished Bachelor’s degree. But our heads dipped under a few times. It was exhausting.
By the time I’d completed a graduate program and we’d eked out some stability, the pandemic hit. But this time, the help was different.
The expanded and enhanced Child Tax Credit in President Biden’s American Rescue Plan not only helped me pay my rent and monthly bills — it helped me be a better mom. Relieved of some financial anxiety, I could spend more time with my daughter and commit to the post-graduate job search, ultimately getting the good job that I have today.
Now I’m financially stable for the first time in my life. But tens of millions of others won’t get that same chance unless lawmakers act. Congress let the expanded Child Tax Credit expire at the end of 2021, even though it had cut child poverty in half. Subsequently, child poverty immediately skyrocketed — a disaster.
But now, Congress again has a chance to expand the Child Tax Credit in a tax package that may pass soon. Frustratingly, the package gives more tax breaks to corporations that already pay little to no taxes, even as it modestly expands the Child Tax Credit again — although by less than before — and improves the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the new credit would lift 400,000 children out of poverty, make 3 million children less poor, and help a substantial number of the remaining 19 million poor children currently excluded from the full benefit.
It’s necessary, but not enough — too much money in the bill goes to corporations that don’t need it. Again, investment priorities are skewed in favor of the wealthy and corporations.
It’s only when we prioritize the well-being of families that we will see families thrive.