The Political Winds Have Changed, and So Has the Fight to End Poverty

WASHINGTON — Twenty-five years ago, a Democratic President celebrated “the end to welfare as we know,” challenging the poor to “independence” while advocating smaller government and balanced budgets.

This week, the Democratic Party ended a march in the other direction.

The deficit-financed $1.9 billion “American Rescue Plan” was President Biden’s first central legislative act. It included programs such as extended aid for nearly all families with children and payments to Black farmers. It provides a range of benefits for the middle class but also serves as a poverty-fighting tool of historic proportions. It delivers more cash assistance immediately to families at the bottom than any federal legislation since the New Deal.

This shift was caused by reorganizing the economic, political, and social forces. It took decades to achieve, but it enabled rapid progress in progressive priorities.

Inequality and stagnant incomes have left many Americans, of all races, in conservative and liberal states, as well as small towns and inner cities, more concerned about their ability to make ends meet. Research has shown the long-term effects of child poverty.

An energized progressive vanguard pulled Democrats leftward, not just Mr. Biden, who had campaigned to be a moderating force.

Under President Donald J. Trump’s Republican predecessor, Mr. Biden, concerns about deficit spending have receded. At the same time, populist strains within both parties led legislators to pay more attention to the frustrations of those struggling to get by. This development was intensified by a pandemic recession that overwhelmingly affected low-income workers but spared higher earners.

Economic equity was at the forefront of the new administration’s agenda after a summer of protests against racism and a coalition of Black voters who lifted Mr. Biden into the White House.

The defining battle for Democrats during the Biden era will be whether the new law is a single culmination of these forces or a downpayment on even more ambitious efforts at addressing the nation’s poverty and opportunity challenges. A banner protesting the August evictions of renters in Washington, D.C. Emboldened by the crisis, many Democrats see a new opportunity to use the government to address significant problems. Credit…Eric Baradat/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images In addition to trying to make permanent some of the temporary provisions in the package, Democrats hope to spend trillions of dollars on upgrading infrastructure, reducing the emissions that drive climate change, reducing the cost of college and child care, expand health coverage and guarantee paid leave and higher wages for workers.

Margaret Weir of Brown University, a political scientist, said the new Democratic stance “is a far cry from the days when ‘big government’ was over.”

The law’s backers see it as more than a social and economic policy package. They also believe it is the beginning of a chance for Democrats to unify a new majority in a deeply divided country built around renewed faith in government.

“Next to civil right, voting rights, and open housing in ’60s and maybe next to Affordable Care Act — maybe — it is the biggest thing Congress have done since the New Deal,” stated Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, a long-standing champion of Mr. Biden’s antipoverty initiatives.

He said that “people are becoming more aware of the fact that government can work for them,” and “now it is.”