The U.S. poverty rate hit a record low last year, according to new census data, but the cheery headline statistic and subsequent celebration of low child poverty rates paints a false picture that economic hardship is rare and diverts public attention away from the structural causes of this chronic American problem.

While these numbers are good news — including an unprecedented drop in child poverty, rightly celebrated by The Seattle Times editorial board — a better understanding of poverty and its causes can lead to more effective solutions for those on the economic margins.

The poverty rate fell to 7.8% in 2021, a 1.4% decline from the year before, the Census Bureau reported. That rate captures the number of individuals and families below the poverty threshold, but it excludes the additional 26% of individuals living up to 200% of that cutoff.

Consider a family with two adults and two children who are renting, for whom living at 200% means total resources of about $63,000. The fact that 34% of Americans live below this line suggests the problem of poverty is much larger than the headlines suggest.

Many within this group are the working poor — those who are working full time but still have a hard time making ends meet, often with unstable earnings from month to month. Understanding the extent of poverty changes the perception: in truth, about 1 in 3 are struggling.

Beyond the scope of the problem, let’s consider the factors shaping poverty risk today.


First, the poverty rate reported by the Census seems low because of effective government policy to reduce poverty. Specific to childhood poverty, the expanded eligibility and total value of child tax credits that were implemented via the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act lifted 2.9 million children out of poverty. The expanded tax credits have since expired and have not been renewed. Making the Child Tax Credits permanent is the clearest way to keep the poverty rate down.

More recently, inflation has made it harder for families to get by. According to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, 40.1% of people nationwide found it “somewhat or very difficult” to meet core expenses (e.g., mortgage, rent, food, car payment, medical expenses), an increase of 13 percentage points from the same time in 2021. In addition to economywide inflation, federal, state and local policymakers are actively adjusting the eligibility and benefits for many safety net programs to pre-pandemic levels.

When dollars don’t go as far as they used to and benefit levels fall, the results ripple outward. Low-income families absorb these changes and buckle down. In doing so, stress increases, relationships are strained, and these tensions are transmitted onto children who then struggle in school and social relationships. Longitudinal research has demonstrated that children who grew up poor were twice as likely as nonpoor counterparts to report poor overall health and high levels of stress. Middle- and upper-class families carry on largely untouched.

Additionally, where you live plays a major role in determining your poverty risk. The cost of living as well as the system of taxes and income transfers is largely shaped at the state level. Some of these systems do much more to lift families out of poverty than others.

For example, research suggests that Oregon and Washington reduce single motherhood poverty significantly, whereas Wyoming and Pennsylvania do very little for individuals with low levels of education. Sixteen states do not offer a state Earned Income Tax Credit and 11 have not adopted Medicaid expansion.

Taking these factors into consideration disrupts the Horatio Alger myth that individuals just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps to escape poverty. It is common practice in this country to blame individuals for their poverty condition. Yet, when poverty is acknowledged as a much wider problem with social causes, we can then redefine how we tackle it.


To be sure, many Americans are prospering. Families who are thriving tend to have higher education and white-collar jobs with flexibility and wealth-building support. They tend to partner with people like themselves and maintain stable and long-term relationships.

Individual responsibility also plays a role in explaining why some people are poor — we all know friends and family members who made decisions that hurt their long-term financial well-being. Yet, to focus on prosperity and individual explanations is to endorse rising inequality and wider division. Instead, we need to embrace the idea that poverty affects us all.

When you think about poverty in this country, don’t just think 8% — that’s not very many people. Consider that the extent of struggle is more likely three times greater and remember that we’re in this together.

The impact of one family’s economic struggle can have lifelong consequences that include damaged relationships and costly remedial interventions. Also remember that forces beyond individual responsibility and risky behavior largely determine who is poor in this country.

Most relevant for those struggling, it’s time to expect our policymakers to do more for the most vulnerable. Making the Child Tax Credit expansions permanent, as supported by Washington’s Democratic congressional delegation — Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Suzan DelBene in particular — would go a long way in meeting the needs of many more families. In providing additional resources, the expanded Child Tax Credit not only would lower poverty rates but would nearly universally establish a stable income floor below which few families could fall. Then can we truly make headway in helping people live beyond poverty.