One year ago, on March 11, 2021, President Joe Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan Act (ARP), the administration’s first major economic recovery legislation.1 The ARP, which built upon pandemic-related emergency funding included in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA)2 and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act,3 helped create an unprecedented economic recovery4 and provided the cushion that millions of families and workers needed to survive the enduring health and economic crisis. The investments made possible by the ARP were particularly essential for individuals of color, women, and people with disabilities—all of whom have faced higher rates of job losses, hospitalization, and death due to the pandemic,5 as well as more hazardous working conditions.6
During the pandemic, low-income individuals and other marginalized populations have endured dire health consequences, fluctuating employment, disrupted child care and education, higher rates of food and housing insecurity, and other acute crises. When consumers spend less, the economy can sink into an even deeper recession. The ARP directed funds and critical support toward those with the greatest need, putting the country on track to a historic recovery and preventing people in poverty from falling further behind.
A note on the analysis
Understanding the ARP’s total beneficial effects on reducing poverty can be challenging, as not all federal funds allocated have yet been spent by state and local governments. Furthermore, some of these benefits will be realized over the long term and are not reflected in this report.
While many of the critical investments from the ARP were temporary, they provided essential support to individuals, families, and communities as they sought to recover and rebuild. Federal investments gave states and cities the flexibility to spend funds in their communities to address need in multiple areas. For example, Michigan and Minnesota used ARP funds to maximize benefits for working people by providing hazard pay and bonuses to essential and front-line workers who kept state economies and services running while much of the country was in lockdown.7 Similarly, at the local level, Albuquerque, New Mexico, spent a portion of its state and local aid on housing vouchers to reduce homelessness.8 At the same time, Milwaukee targeted some of its ARP investments to address food security, ensuring that older adults, children, homebound adults, and other marginalized communities throughout the city had access to food during the worst of the pandemic.9
Despite the dire health and economic implications of the pandemic, the legislative response through the ARP and the historic vaccination program10 have contributed to a speedier economic recovery that is putting more people back to work and on a path to financial stability than in periods following past recessions.11 By the second quarter of 2021, for example, the United States’ real gross domestic product (GDP) exceeded its pre-pandemic level—the first country in the G-7 to reach this milestone.12 In addition, the unemployment rate went from a high of 14.7 percent in April 2020 to 4 percent in January 2022.13 Without the ARP, in 2021, the United States would have been at risk of a double-dip recession and would have added far fewer jobs, with a much higher unemployment rate.14 Instead, many lower-income workers saw increases in real wages compared with pre-pandemic levels.15
Despite this recovery, ARP funds are already starting to expire. Without additional federal investments that target the recovery of individuals and communities still struggling to overcome the effects of the pandemic, marginalized people will continue to fall into economic precarity. The recent expiration of the expanded monthly child tax credit (CTC), for example, shows how the elimination of this critical support for families with children has caused child poverty to spike by almost 4 million in the two months since the monthly benefit expired.16 While the U.S. economy is indeed rebounding—in part due to important federal investments such as the ARP—more must be done to ensure that the economic recovery reaches everyone equitably and that investments address the deep-rooted structural issues of sexism, racism, and ableism that have divided the country and economy for too long.
The accomplishments of the ARP, and its impact on reducing poverty for many over the past year, illustrate a way forward and are worthy of study.17 This report examines how some of the ARP’s most impactful investments have reduced poverty, helped individuals and families build financial security, and provided support to communities to rebuild in a more equitable way, even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect jobs, public health, housing and food security, and more.
The ARP’s economic impact payments helped reduce poverty and increase disposable income
Economic impact payments (EIPs), or stimulus payments, are arguably among the most significant ARP investments, providing fast and direct relief to millions of Americans. Within weeks of its enactment, the ARP sent a third round of EIPs in the amount of $1,400 per person to every individual or family under certain income levels, reaching the vast majority of Americans. More than 160 million EIPs went out, benefiting more than 100 million individuals and families with pre-2021 incomes of less than $60,000.18
Unlike the two prior rounds of stimulus payments, households also received payments not only for children but also for adult dependents. For example, a couple with two children received $5,600, while couples supporting an older or disabled dependent, or single parents with two children, received $4,200.19 The EIPs provided crucial additional economic support for families struggling during the pandemic and reduced poverty substantially.
These payments were crucial for providing millions of individuals who were out of work or unable to work with some financial stability during a volatile pandemic. The EIPs and the monthly CTC payments were key reasons that the average real disposable incomes of Americans rose in 2021,20 helping individuals and families weather the worst of the pandemic.
The ARP altered the tax code to support low-income families and workers
Another form of direct relief that helped to dramatically reduce child poverty and financial insecurity was the expansion of the CTC. The ARP transformed the CTC into a near-universal child allowance, increasing the base amount of the CTC from $2,000 to a maximum of $3,000 per dependent child age 17 or younger and adding an additional $600 for children younger than age 6.21 These expansions were phased out for those with higher incomes.22 Moreover, for the first time, the CTC was disbursed on an advance basis: From July 2021 to December 2021, families received a monthly CTC payment. These changes provided a lifeline for millions of families, who used the payments for basic necessities such as rent, food, child care, and school expenses or to pay down debts or save.23
Crucially, the ARP also made the CTC fully refundable for the first time, ensuring that families whose incomes were too low to owe federal income taxes were now able to receive the full tax credit.24 Families of an estimated 27 million children—roughly half of whom are Black, Latino, and rural families—were now eligible for the full tax credit instead of a partial credit or no credit.25 Fully including these families in the CTC raised the incomes of the lowest-income quintile of families with children by 35 percent.26
The CTC payments contributed to immediate and dramatic reductions in child poverty and food insufficiency among families with children.27 And in recent surveys, most families reported reduced financial stress due to the CTC.28
The profound impact of the 2021 CTC expansion was underscored by the fact that child poverty increased by more than 40 percent in January 2022, after the monthly payments stopped. Ending the monthly CTC benefits meant that 3.7 million children fell back into poverty, with the largest percentage increases among Black and Latino children.29
Additionally, the ARP boosted the earned income tax credit (EITC), nearly tripling the maximum benefit for low-income childless workers—those not raising children in their home—to $1,502. For the first time, it also extended the EITC to childless workers ages 19 to 24 and older than age 64.30 The expanded EITC, which workers are now claiming on their tax returns, is estimated to benefit more than 17 million low-income workers, including 9.7 million white, 3.6 million Latino, 2.7 million Black, and 816,000 Asian workers;31 these numbers include 2.7 million workers living in rural areas.32 Despite this investment being key to pulling millions of low-income workers out of deep poverty, the EITC has not been extended for the current tax year, even as individuals and families continue to struggle to recover from the pandemic.33
The ARP also dramatically expanded the child and dependent care tax credit (CDCTC). Under prior law, the CDCTC provided at most a very modest benefit for middle-income families—and no benefit at all for low-income families because it was nonrefundable.34 The ARP made the CDCTC fully refundable for 2021, ensuring that families who incurred out-of-pocket child or dependent care expenses could benefit, regardless of their tax liability. It also expanded the credit to match half of expenses up to $16,000 for two or more children. Like the expanded EITC, families are now able to claim these increased benefits on their 2021 tax returns, but the expansion will expire afterward.35
The ARP’s UI enhancements supported millions of struggling workers
A robust unemployment insurance (UI) system has huge benefits for workers and the economy as a whole.36 UI protects workers and their families from significant hardship, provides substantial stimulus to the economy to counteract recessions, and boosts worker power to demand better pay and conditions from their employers.37
Two months into the pandemic, the unemployment rate rose to a staggering 14.7 percent—leaving 23 million workers and their families without an income.38 Those job losses were largest among low-wage workers, who are disproportionately young workers, women, and people of color.39 The CARES Act passed in March 2020 expanded UI by creating a new federal UI program, Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), that boosted weekly benefits by $600 and provided an additional 13 weeks of eligibility and by expanding eligibility through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program to workers who are generally not eligible for UI, such as gig workers and those with irregular or insufficient work histories.40 These UI expansions helped 5.5 million more people, including 1.4 million children, avoid poverty in 2020;41 during the first year of COVID-19, 1 in 4 American workers relied on UI benefits to weather job loss during the pandemic.42
By March 2021, there were still almost 11 million fewer jobs in the labor market than before the pandemic.43 The ARP extended the funding for the expanded UI programs created under the CARES Act through September 6, 2021, but with a $300 PUC benefit—rather than the $600 benefit distributed before the first UI expansion expired—preventing almost 13 million struggling workers from losing their unemployment benefits entirely on March 14, 2021.44 The law also made the first $10,200 in unemployment benefits received in 2020 tax-exempt,45 providing needed relief to the approximately 40 million workers who had lost jobs or livelihoods during the pandemic and received some UI benefits in 2020.46 Finally, the APR provided some additional funding to modernize the UI system and promote equitable access to the benefits.47
However, for all the good that the extension of expanded UI benefits did, it was cut far too soon. First, as the economy started bouncing back, some business owners and conservatives claimed that workers were refusing to work because of UI benefits, resulting in 26 states prematurely cutting off the expanded benefits48—despite there being no evidence that UI extensions or benefit increases kept people from working.49 Then, the federal expansions of UI expired in September 2021, resulting in more than 6 million workers losing all their UI benefits, along with another 2 million set to lose them soon after.50
Although hiring has been significant, many job sectors have still not returned to pre-pandemic levels.51 Without long-term federal reform, access to UI will continue to be extremely limited, and benefit levels will continue to be too low to live on in all parts of the country, with wide inequity among states in access and benefit amounts.52
The ARP provided food assistance to people in need
Food insecurity—lacking access to enough food to live an active and healthy life—spiked during the pandemic and subsequent recession, reaching a high of 13.7 percent among adults, or nearly 30 million people, in December 2020.53 Food insecurity was felt most acutely by people of color54 and individuals with disabilities.55 For those earning less than $25,000 per year, food insecurity peaked at 35.3 percent.56 Between January 26 and February 7, 2022, more than 22 million adults—more than 10 million of whom lived in households with children—reported that they sometimes did not have enough to eat.57
The ARP included more than $12 billion in key investments in food assistance programs, expanding and extending emergency food assistance provisions included in the FFCRA and CARES Act packages.58 The ARP extended Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program, a child nutrition program that provides grocery benefits to children when school buildings are closed.59 The ARP also provided funds to modernize the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and addressed the increased food need in American territories, including Puerto Rico.60 As previously mentioned, the expanded CTC also helped sustain lower levels of food insecurity through the latter half of 2021 in households with children.61
Importantly, SNAP is an automatic stabilizer—that is, participation expands automatically when a household loses its income, preventing further economic contraction. While food insecurity in this country, pre-pandemic62 and today, remains unacceptably high, ARP investments helped alleviate food insecurity over the past year and strengthened SNAP’s role as an automatic stabilizer. Eighty percent of SNAP benefits reach households at or below the federal poverty level (FPL).63 Prior to the pandemic, the average SNAP benefit was just $1.40 per meal, per person, often not enough to feed a family.64 The ARP extended a temporary 15 percent increase in the maximum SNAP benefit through September 2021, which meant that low-income households had an extra $27 per person, per month to spend on their food budget.65 The SNAP extension provided program participants—some 40 million Americans—slightly more than $100 per month in additional food assistance for a family of four, which was a lifesaver for families struggling to meet basic needs, maintain financial stability, and weather the worst of the pandemic.66
As noted above, the ARP also extended the P-EBT program that millions of people rely on to feed their families.67 When schools went virtual, the P-EBT program allocated free and reduced-price school meal dollars to low-income and other marginalized students, ensuring that their families had access to food even when schools were physically closed.
The ARP made long-overdue investments to address the affordable housing and homelessness crisis
Much like food insecurity, the pandemic laid bare a severe affordable housing and worsening homelessness crisis. Safe, stable, and affordable housing is imperative to the country’s economic and public health recovery during and after the pandemic. However, millions of Americans simply do not have access to this basic need.
In January 2021, some 15 million adults—or 1 in 5 adult renters—faced housing insecurity.68 There were about 2 million homeowners in mortgage forbearance by June 2021;69 by February 2022, more than 10 million renters were still not caught up on their rental payments, and more than 6 million homeowners were not caught up on mortgage payments.70 People of color71 and people with disabilities72 face even greater housing hardship and are more likely to have deferred or missed rental or mortgage payments, putting them at higher risk for eviction and foreclosure.
The homelessness crisis, too, worsened during the pandemic, as people lost jobs and their income. The recent end of federal eviction moratoriums across the nation73 allowed landlords to evict low-income people from their homes at a time when the pandemic is still raging. In February 2022, 4.4 million renters reported that they were somewhat or very likely to lose their homes in the next two months due to eviction.74
The ARP offered critical help to renters and homeowners to alleviate pandemic-related housing insecurity by providing emergency rental assistance and housing vouchers; homelessness assistance programs and supportive services; homeowner assistance; rural housing; fair housing activities; housing counseling; and utilities assistance.75 Rental assistance funds and critical supports through the Emergency Housing Voucher program have kept thousands of renters in their homes as of early 2022.76 The ARP made some long-overdue investments in housing affordability and stock, combating housing insecurity and homelessness arising not only from the pandemic but also from inflated housing prices and deep-rooted racist and ableist policies that have forced too many people into housing precarity.77 As Figure 7 illustrates, the number of assisted households has increased exponentially since July 2021.
These housing investments, however temporary, expanded access to housing stability and security for millions of low-income people, people of color, those with disabilities, and families with children.
ARP workforce investments for training and hazard pay will result in better jobs
To support a strong economic recovery and boost employment, policymakers must invest in the job seeker as a whole, meeting basic needs such as food and housing and providing access to workforce training, workforce supports, and adequate wages necessary to succeed in the labor market.78 ARP funding has supported access to employment and improved the quality of jobs by investing in workforce development activities and hazard pay.
At the federal level, the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) is investing in the Good Jobs Challenge—a program that connects workers with training and career readiness entities and employers with job openings—by allocating $500 million dollars to collaborative skills training for workers in jobs that exceed the local prevailing wage for an industry, include basic benefits and/or are unionized, and support career pathways.79 Workforce development is also an allowable activity under the EDA’s Economic Adjustment Assistance program, which supports employment through construction and nonconstruction projects; at least $200 million of this funding is specifically set aside to support coal communities.80
The ARP also made significant investments in health care workforce development to support those on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has allocated $73 million toward the Public Health Informatics and Technology Workforce Development program, with the intent of diversifying the public health IT workforce,81 and $48 million targeting public health workforce development in rural and tribal communities.82 Significantly, the ARP also included $100 million to reduce burnout among staff and to promote mental health.83
At least 25 states have also chosen to allocate portions of their $350 billion dollar in direct, flexible ARP funding to workforce development.84 For example, Massachusetts has allocated more than $100 million in funding that will leverage vocational schools to train adults for high-demand jobs; invest in collaborative sectoral training models that bring together employers, job-seeker-serving organizations, and training providers; and offer support services to women and others disproportionately affected by the pandemic.85 New Jersey has invested in a first-of-its-kind Child Care Revitalization Fund that will provide workforce development supports to the underresourced and undervalued child care workforce.86 And Colorado is investing $75 million in workforce development, including $35 million for the public workforce system to prepare job seekers for well-paying, quality jobs.87
Several states also invested in hazard pay for front-line workers disproportionately affected by the pandemic on the job and at home, largely women and workers of color.88 The state of Washington increased wages for home-care workers by $2.50 per hour, leading to improved recruitment and retention for new and incumbent employees.89 Alaska has awarded up to $2,580 to early childhood educators for personal or professional use in an effort to improve retention in a workforce that has been stretched to its seams.90 Virginia and Indiana have allocated funds for hazard pay for correctional officers, many of whom have faced extreme burnout resulting from isolation, lack of adequate staffing, and other COVID-19-related challenges.91
The ARP has facilitated gains in health coverage and affordability
The health provisions of the ARP improved affordability and coverage access for millions of Americans by increasing Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplace subsidies; the law also made important advancements related to maternal health.
For 2021 and 2022, the ARP enhanced financial assistance for low- and middle-income families, enabled those with family incomes of up to 150 percent of the FPL to enroll in a ACA Silver plan with no premium cost, and made premium tax credits newly available to people with family incomes above 400 percent of the FPL, who were not previously eligible for financial assistance.92 The ARP also made zero-premium plans available to Americans who received unemployment benefits in 2021, benefiting 208,622 enrollees through the legislation’s unemployment compensation provision.93 The ARP’s affordability provisions contributed to historic enrollment levels, with 14.5 million Americans enrolling in 2022 marketplace coverage.94
Trends in overall health coverage suggest that the ARP helped more people obtain health insurance. The nation’s uninsured rate decreased from 9.7 percent in the second quarter of 2021 to 8.9 percent in the third quarter of 2021.95 Lower-income populations experienced the largest coverage gains, with uninsured rates decreasing by 4.2 percentage points for individuals with incomes between 100 percent and 200 percent of the FPL and 4 percentage points for individuals with incomes below 100 percent of the FPL.96 Comprehensive and affordable health insurance coverage provided by the ACA reduces the medical financial burden on low-income individuals and families, contributing to their financial stability.97
Related to maternal health, the ARP created a new option for states to extend postpartum Medicaid coverage from around 60 days to one year. States can apply for a state plan amendment starting on April 1, 2022, and for five years thereafter. Up until recently, pregnant and postpartum people living in states that have not expanded their Medicaid programs were eligible to receive more narrow pregnancy-related Medicaid coverage for only up to around 60 days postpartum. Since the ARP was passed, more than two dozen states have pursued legislative and regulatory changes to extend postpartum Medicaid coverage beyond 60 days—in most cases, to one year.98 Extending postpartum coverage to one year is a critical component to addressing America’s maternal mortality crisis as well as improving people’s postpartum experiences. Indeed, about one-third of all maternal deaths occur between one week and one year postpartum, and 60 percent of maternal deaths are preventable.99
The expansions to health care under the ARP, while not permanent, do provide enhanced protections for several years. To preserve these gains in affordability, coverage, costs, and maternal supports, Congress should extend subsidy enhancements and pass legislation extending postpartum coverage to ensure a healthy and thriving population.
The ARP provided critical supports for those with disabilities
The disabled community was particularly hard hit by the pandemic, experiencing higher risks of hospitalization and death.100 COVID-19 significantly and negatively affected employment,101 food security,102 housing access,103 health care,104 education,105 and many other important aspects of daily living. Individuals with disabilities and older adults living in congregate facilities were especially at risk, and at least 23 percent106 of all COVID-19 deaths in the United States occurred in these locations.
The ARP provided significant additional funding for two essential programs: the Money Follows the Person (MFP) and the Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS) waiver programs. Medicaid’s MFP program provides funding to help disabled people and older adults move from institutions to the community. The ARP extended MFP funding, which expired in December 2019, through September 30, 2023. HCBS is another Medicaid program that provides disabled people and older adults with services and supports in their communities.107 The ARP increased funding for the HCBS program by temporarily raising the federal medical assistance percentage—the percentage that the federal government covers in expenses—by 10 percentage points through March 31, 2022. Both programs have helped alleviate the pandemic’s impacts on individuals living in congregate settings, providing opportunities for individuals to live in their private homes.
Finally, the ARP invested in efforts through its Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund. Part of the ESSER funding went directly to Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) services to alleviate some of the hardships that many students with disabilities have faced, in part due to school systems across the country transitioning to remote learning, and to address concerns around immunocompromised and high-risk students during the pandemic. The ARP provided $2.5 billion for Section 611, Part B of IDEA, which supports school-age children ages 3 to 21. It also provided additional funding for children 3–5 years of age through Section 619 of IDEA Part B108 with $200 million.109 Finally, the ARP provided $250 million110 to IDEA Part C, which supports early intervention services for infants and toddlers younger than age 3. This additional state grant funding covers additional expenses that service providers incur during the pandemic under a student’s individualized education plan (IEP), including in-home or online services. IEPs are individualized plans developed in coordination with the school and parents to help disabled students achieve specific academic and life goals.111
The enactment of the ARP in March 2021 helped alleviate financial and health hardships for individuals and families across the country. The law led to higher real GDP and job growth, contributing to real financial stability for millions, especially as the nation still tackles the impacts of the ongoing pandemic. The economic stimulus package served as a historical benchmark demonstrating how public policy and federal investment can mitigate the effects of an enduring pandemic and economic recession, while helping the most marginalized individuals and communities survive, recover, and rebuild. Without such legislation, the pandemic recovery, along with job and economic growth, would have stalled.112
Many of the federal investments in the ARP were only temporary, serving as an emergency infusion of funds intended to be built upon with long-term sustainable investments. Federal funds and programs, including the CTC and UI, that kept the worst of the pandemic fallouts at bay are now expiring or have already expired. Many who depended on these critical funds are now left with fewer resources to manage their economic and health recoveries, worsening long-standing disparities. For example, the unemployment rates in the fourth quarter of 2021 for Black and Hispanic workers stood at 6.7 and 4.9 percent, respectively—both much higher than the unemployment rate for white workers, at 3.4 percent.113 Temporarily expanded UI benefits gave unemployed individuals a critical cushion when they lost their jobs, allowing them to meet basic needs and maintain some financial security while they looked for a new job. As expanded UI benefits expired, individuals who were still struggling to find employment were left with the same outdated systems that existed before the pandemic, 114 unless their state took action on structural reforms.115
The ARP, however temporary, shows the benefits of investing in a more durable social safety net. Real economic strength comes from centering policies on the people and communities who have historically been left behind during economic recoveries. Going forward, those lessons must be applied to create a more durable and resilient economy for all. America’s economy only works when it works for everyone. Without additional investment and urgent action to help more people find good jobs, stay healthy during and after the pandemic, and build financial security, the country’s chances of an equitable recovery and stronger, more sustainable economic growth could slip away. Congress must act on the opportunity to make sure that all the progress from the past year is sustained in the long term.
The authors would like to thank Jessica Vela, Nick Buffie, Anona Neal, Rose Khattar, and Lily Roberts of CAP, as well as Andy Stettner of The Century Foundation, for their valuable contributions to the report.