October 1, 2023 Essay: Poverty in the United States: Policy Choices Do Matter

Sep 25, 2023

Poverty spiked in 2022, according to data recently released by the United States Census Bureau. The Supplemental Poverty Measure was 12.4% in 2022, up from 7.8% in 2021. Most disturbing, child poverty more than doubled, going from 5.2% in 2021 to 12.4% in 2022. If the United States is to be a ‘pro-life’ nation, then we will have to enact policies to reduce poverty.

Recently, two Washington Post columnists from opposite ends of the political spectrum, Marc Thiessen and Alyssa Rosenberg, came together to argue for a pro-family legislative agenda for our national government. It is interesting to note that many of their policy proposals mirror those our own United States Catholic Bishops put forward in a letter sent to every member of Congress in October of 2022. If we are to reduce poverty in this country, then all of us need to give voice to these sensible policy recommendations and demand that politicians who identify themselves as ‘pro-life’ prove that by the policy choices they support. These are some of the proposals supported by Thiessen and Rosenberg.

Make Pregnancy Less Dangerous. This country’s infant and maternal mortality rates remain shamefully high and disproportionately affect Black women. Legislation has been proposed to harness the ability of the federal government to amass data and convene stakeholders in identifying the most effective means to address this twin crisis. Bipartisan legislation has been introduced to review how maternity care is taught to doctors and nurses. It also seeks to expand access to doula care, to telehealth maternal care, and to devices such as glucose monitors for women with gestational diabetes who are on Medicaid. The federal and state governments need to collaborate in helping those who are pregnant access health care before, during and after pregnancy, get and retain safe housing, and assist mothers to continue working or attend school.

Help Parents Afford Babies. The federal government needs to eliminate the current marriage penalties embedded in many of its support programs. The Child Tax Credit is key to helping families. The poverty rate for children doubled largely because Congress did not renew the expanded child tax credit payments enacted during the pandemic. Senator Mitt Romney has proposed raising the credit from $2,000 per child to $4,200 for children younger than six and $3,000 for those ages 6 to 17. Our bishops have called for the credit to be fully refundable, that is, available to those who do not owe federal taxes. It should be a national policy to extend Medicaid coverage for mothers and babies until a year after birth. In addition, the eligibility of new mothers to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children should be expanded from one to two years. States can be encouraged to exempt child-care necessities from sales taxes.

Support Child-Care Needs. Thiessen and Rosenberg propose a universal tax-exempt parental leave and family savings account to cover parenting-related expenses, including parental leave and children’s sick days off from school. The plan would be portable from job to job, and companies could deduct their matching contributions to employees’ family savings accounts from their corporate taxes. As proposed in bipartisan legislation, Congress should also raise the amount parents can save pretax in dependent care flexible spending accounts from $5,000 to $10,500.

This cursory summary of what Thiessen and Rosenberg propose reminds us that there are policy choices that we can make that are pro-family and that will act to reduce poverty. Our bishops have pointed this out as well. It is time for us to be educated on these policies and to press for their enactment. In doing so, we will help to reduce poverty in America and make this country truly pro-life pro-family.

— Fr. Mark Hallinan, S.J., Associate Pastor