Pandemic safety net programs kept millions out of poverty in 2021, new Census data show

It should not have taken a pandemic to realize poverty is a public policy choice.  

Public investments in safety net programs continue to be extremely effective poverty reduction tools, as newly released Census income data show. Government social programs kept tens of millions of people out of poverty in 2021. Because of expansions to programs like unemployment insurance benefits and the Child Tax Credit, poverty rates were actually lower in 2021 than they were prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The poverty reduction achieved through expanded social insurance programs highlights how much policymakers’ choices can impact poverty.   

Unfortunately, some of the program expansions enacted in the pandemic have already been reversed, and cuts to programs like unemployment benefits and the Child Tax Credit will increase household economic distress going forward. 

Last year, Social Security had the largest anti-poverty impact, reducing the number of people in poverty by 26 million. Recent policy expansions including refundable tax credits, like the earned income tax credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC), and economic impact stimulus payments also reduced the number of people in poverty by roughly 10 and 9 million people respectively.  

Without government programs, millions more would be in poverty: Number of people in poverty, as measured by the Supplemental Poverty Measure, and additional number that would be in poverty without specified government program, by age group, 2021

Under 18 years 18 to 64 years 65 years and older Total
Number of people in poverty 3,829,000 15,752,000 6,003,000 0
Social Security 1,065,000 7,183,000 18,091,000 0
Refundable tax credits 4,893,000 4,536,000 206,000 1
Economic Impact/stimulus 2,270,000 4,939,000 1,690,000 2
Child Tax Credit 2,919,000 2,315,000 108,000 3
SNAP/school lunch 1,188,000 1,883,000 343,000 4
SSI 288,000 1,874,000 585,000 5
Housing subsidies 595,000 1,200,000 616,000 6
Unemployment insurance 525,000 1,569,000 198,000 7
TANF/general assistance 109,000 161,000 15,000 8
Energy assistance 32,000 77,000 41,000 9
Workers’ compensation 11,000 117,000 10,000 10
WIC 39,000 41,000 0 11
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