Poverty Rates Reveal Inconvenient Truth About Progressive Policies

The Biden administration’s misguided attempt to redistribute the wealth have lead to increasing poverty rates.

In 2019—just two years after the implementation of President Donald Trump’s promising anti-poverty programs—the Census Bureau reported that the poverty rate for the United States declined to 10.5 percent, the lowest since estimates were first released for 1959. More importantly, census data revealed that Blacks and Hispanics reached “historic lows” in their poverty rates in 2019. With the lowest recorded rates of poverty since the 1950s for Blacks, President Trump’s policies were actually working to reduce poverty for this vulnerable poverty-prone demographic.

Unfortunately, all of these gains were lost within the first year of the Biden administration’s misguided attempt to redistribute the wealth. The recently released 2021 Census data revealed that rather than bringing up historically disadvantaged groups, the Biden administration—and its Democratic Party enablers—have consigned even more individuals to poverty. Even before inflation skyrocketed in 2022, Black and Hispanic households began to fall into poverty again, and a million more seniors age 65 years and older were plunged into poverty under the Biden administration in 2021 as the percentage of seniors in poverty rose to the highest level since 2002.

Increasing poverty rates are indeed an inconvenient truth that cannot be easily dismissed. And no one can deny the very real success that the Trump administration experienced in reducing poverty for all groups. Census data showed that—during the second and third year of the Trump administration—the declines in the poverty rate for Blacks in 2018 and 2019 were the lowest rates observed since poverty estimates were first produced for this group for 1959. In 2019, poverty rates for Blacks declined to 18.8 percent. The previous lowest rate for Blacks was 20.8 percent in 2018—only one year after Trump became president. 

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Likewise, for Hispanics, the poverty rates in 2019 were also the lowest ever observed for Hispanics (15.7 percent). In 2018, the poverty rate for Hispanics was the second lowest, with 17.6 percent. Census data on poverty statistics for Hispanics dates back to 1972, and the 2019 rates are the lowest ever recorded.

After decades of failed “anti-poverty programs” promoted by both Republican and Democrat politicians, the Trump administration appeared to be the first to succeed in beginning to win the War on Poverty that began in the 1960s. And although no one would celebrate the fact that in 2019 the share of Blacks in poverty was still 1.8 times greater than their share among the general population, no one can deny the progress that Black and Hispanic households enjoyed during the Trump years.   

These Trump-era gains have all been lost. Certainly, Covid lockdowns played a role. But Covid is not the cause. Progressive policies are. And poverty rates for all will only get worse as inflation continues to rage out of control and taxes increase. Seniors with fixed incomes and inadequate Social Security payments cannot keep up with expenses for food, housing, and an increasing tax burden, and millions more will fall into poverty. Out-of-pocket medical care services continue to rise for seniors—despite President Biden’s much-hyped prescription drug reductions. 

The most vulnerable elderly—those aged 80 and older—have higher rates of poverty than other seniors. Both men and women 65 and older who are married and living with a spouse are less likely to be poor than those who are not married. This disproportionately affects Black seniors, who are both less likely to be married and more likely to have fallen into poverty under the Biden administration. Nearly 19 percent of women over 80 who live alone are in poverty. And poverty rates are even higher, at 22.5 percent, among never-married elderly men.

The disappearance of pensions and the declining in value of retirement savings accounts will only make things worse for Seniors. States with large numbers of senior citizens as well as Black and Hispanic residents are most likely to have the highest poverty rates. Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, West Virginia, and New Mexico experienced the highest rates of poverty in 2021. But most states have experienced increases in poverty under the Biden administration’s policies.

Perhaps it is time for lawmakers to consider looking closely at the successful anti-poverty programs that the Trump administration created. When President Trump took office, he issued an executive order to direct federal agencies to review more than 80 federal anti-poverty programs, consolidating where there was redundancy and overlap, and reforming them all by encouraging recipients of the services from these programs to work toward becoming self-sufficient. It was a kind of renewed and improved “welfare to work” strategy that former President Clinton implemented when he realized that the country was headed in the wrong direction—and he would not be reelected.    

But helping workers truly become self-sufficient would require much more than low-paying jobs. It would require courage, the courage to acknowledge that in order for people to support themselves and start families, they need adequate wages—just wages that enable them to actually get married and have a family and support their children without assistance from the government in the form of food stamps, medical care, and housing. 

Such a program would require that we go beyond what President Trump started. It would require that employers who receive government contracts or tax benefits from the locality pay their workers a living wage. Rather than tax incentives to employers which have never really trickled down to workers, employers who have benefited from some form of incentive should be required to give something back to the workers.   

In the late 1800s, the term “living wage” became an important part of the burgeoning American labor movement. Rerum Novarum, an encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII on May 15, 1891, on the “Condition of Labor” helped give birth to the labor movement. Opening with a description of the lack of dignity afforded to the working classes, the encyclical reminds the faithful of the special obligation to provide justice for workers. Although it decries the dishonesty of the Socialist promises and defends the right of private ownership and private property, Rerum Novarum, which means “New Things,” calls on the combined action of the Church, the State, the employer, and the employed to work together to provide justice for workers and social well-being for all.  

Pope Leo XIII suggested that employers and workers should organize into associations for mutual protection and self-protection. Since that time, Catholic social teachings have always held that a just wage is necessary to maintain a life of dignity for workers—providing a theological rationale for an ability for workers to organize to demand a just wage by linking work to human dignity. Labor unions are an important part of this.   

With the emergence of the New Deal in the 1930s, a living wage became defined as a wage that would meet workers’ needs to enable them to support themselves and their families. In his Statement on the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt maintained that 

No business that depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country…By business I mean the whole of commerce, as well as the whole of industry; by workers I mean all workers…and by living wages, I mean more than a bare subsistence level—I mean the wages of decent living. 

President Roosevelt called on workers to “do their share also,” saying that “This law is also a challenge to labor…the first move expected by the Nation is a great cooperation of all.”

The Trump strategy of encouraging self-sufficiency of workers was one that was effective, and the progress would likely have continued had the Biden administration been willing to acknowledge this and begin to reject the failed progressive entitlement programs of the past. It is difficult to predict whether the Trump administration would have recognized the need for a just wage and the rights of workers to organize. But it was clear that President Trump knew that the anti-poverty programs of the progressives were never going to provide the kind of human dignity and self-determination that his proposed policies promised and delivered. 

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]

  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications, 2020).

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