Poverty increased amid the pandemic after years of decline, but government relief made a difference

Homeless people in Framingham, getting clothing donations from Our Lady of Fatima Shrine in Holliston. (Photo by Pietro Rossini/BU News Service)

By Pietro Rossini
Boston University News Service

In 2020, for the first time in five consecutive years, there was an increase in poverty in the U.S., according to the latest Income and Poverty Report released by the U.S. Census Bureau. 

More than 3.3 million people in the U.S. have been struggling to make ends meet according to the report, which was released in September 2021.

“There are much more people struggling with homelessness now than before the pandemic,” said Lisa Trusas, recovery coach and warmer shelter manager in Milford.

Homelessness increased since 2019, from 567,715 to 580,466 units in 2020, according to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report released by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, with homelessness increasing nationwide for four consecutive years, according to the same report.

Trusas said that there are several people living in storage units and that they are “the lucky ones,” given that many others don’t have any place to stay.

Storage units in Milford, Mass., in which some people are allegedly sheltered due to lack of housing. (Photo by Pietro Rossini/BU News Service)

“Some people think that getting housing is easy; it’s not,” said Trusas. “Sometimes it takes years to get housing. And that’s awful because there are so many people struggling.”

Only 61% of the people experiencing homelessness were staying in sheltered locations according to the same report, while 39% were unsheltered.

“Some people do not want to stay in a shelter,” said Trusas. “They fear losing their belongings. Some are young couples and don’t want to be separated.”

It’s been more than 20 years since Trusas started working to help people in need. Coming to the Commonwealth from Virginia in 2009, she said she could never imagine meeting the homeless like this in Massachusetts.

She mentioned how, sometimes, people who are not wrestling with homelessness or poverty themselves can be unaware of the issue. 

“People are shocked when they hear that there are homeless people living in their towns,” Trusas said.

Volunteers helping a homeless man, who found a provisional shelter behind a church building in Framingham. (Photo by Pietro Rossini/BU News Service)

According to the report, poverty affected different demographic groups in different ways. Poverty among males increased from 9.4% in 2019 to 10.2% in 2020, while the poverty rate among females increased from 11.5% to 12.6%, according to the U.S. Census report.

Black Americans still faced the highest levels of poverty, although there were no significant changes between 2019 and 2020, while the poverty rate (8.1%) for Asian residents was not statistically different from 2019 either.

The Hispanic poverty rate, meanwhile, increased to 17%, around two percentage points higher than in 2019, while non-Hispanic white increased to 8.2%, a 0.9% increase.

Another important factor that the report takes into account is age.

While poverty among people aged over 65 was not statistically different from 2019, the one registered among people aged from 18 to 64 increased to 10.4% from 9.4%, according to the report.

Homeless people in Framingham, getting clothing donations from Our Lady of Fatima Shrine in Holliston. (Photo by Pietro Rossini/BU News Service)

The poverty rate for people aged under 18 increased to 16.1% from 14.4%, said the report; almost two percentage points higher than what was reported in 2019.

Despite this increase, another report by the U.S. Census shows that the relief plans implemented by the government during the COVID-19 pandemic significantly helped some from slipping into further poverty.

The 2020 Supplemental Poverty Measure is an extension of the official poverty report and also takes into account government programs. The report found that the 2020 SPM was 9.1%, 2.6 percentage points lower than in 2019. There were only 11 states, plus the District of Columbia, for which the 2020 SPM was higher than the 2019 SPM.

The report also shows that the stimulus payments distributed over the course of 2020 moved 11.7 million individuals out of poverty, while the unemployment benefits prevented 5.5 million individuals from falling into poverty.

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