Poverty & the Pandemic: How Service Providers Can Build Community Power


Written by Olivia Peña (Networks and Learning Practice Coordinator)

The release of the Census Bureau’s latest data on U.S. poverty highlights the realities and challenges that lower income communities face. The COVID-19 pandemic has both elevated concern about poverty in the media as well as forced nonprofits to go above and beyond their usual response to mitigating the impacts of poverty. Although nonprofits are spread thinner than usual, there is an important opportunity for organizations to work with the constituents and communities they serve to advocate on their own behalf for policies and public investments that address the growing hardship across the country.

The 2019 U.S. poverty rate, according to the Census Bureau was 10.5%, meaning that 1 in 10 individuals in the U.S., or 34 million people, were considered in poverty. It’s important to note that this latest data on poverty in the U.S. does not capture the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on families across the country taking place this year. However, this data does speak to the persistent and harmful impacts of poverty. It’s also critical to consider the data surrounding the poverty level – 26.3% of people in the U.S. are at or below 200% of the federal poverty level, which does not take into account the myriad of living expenses, medical costs, bills, groceries, and other basic needs that bring individuals and families closer to the brink of poverty, despite their income. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many families – particularly families of color – were one illness or one job loss away from experiencing the difficult realities of poverty. Now these families are adding to those in need. The simultaneously occurring pandemics of COVID-19 and white supremacy have brought the issue of poverty and racial inequity to the forefront of mainstream conversations in 2020. Disappointingly, the income disparities in 2019 between Black and Hispanic households compared to white households continue to be vast – Black and Hispanic households made a median of 60% and 74% of the median white household income, respectively.

Nonprofit service providers – who are rightfully considered essential workers – continue to support the access to basic needs that are made more accessible through social safety net programs for individuals and families facing economic hardship. Food pantry lines that previously extended out the door pre-COVID-19 have turned into distribution sites with lines extending over a mile during the pandemic. As the pandemic continues, service providers are connecting individuals and families to vital community resources, as they’ve done in the past, but the growing economic hardship in our communities demands that those providing services double up their work with advocates and organizers to include building the power and voice for people facing the consequences of poverty and to use their examples to make needed changes at the state and federal levels.

That is why service providers also must work differently as they face increasing numbers of clients, threats of massive budget cuts from local and state government, and staff members who need appropriate PPE to do their jobs. They need to not only serve, but also partner with those in need to make changes to address the policies that have created the growing inequality in the United States. This year has also focused more attention on the important work of service providers and other community workers who connect marginalized communities to crucial programs and assistance that supports economic security.

As the current administration prepares to slash programs such as SNAP, veterans benefits, and rental assistance, service providers can play a crucial role (while increasing their own capacity) by amplifying client and constituent voices in the current conversations around poverty. Through Building Movement Project’s search portal Tools2Engage, resources are available for nonprofits and community advocates to develop and strengthen skills to engage the communities they serve. While the poverty data can serve as a broad, 30,000-foot indicator, it is the voices and stories of individuals with lived experiences that provide the greatest impact to make change. During this moment of heightened attention to injustice and increased service work mitigating these inequities, nonprofits have an important moment and strategic opportunity to amplify the voices and build the leadership of those directly impacted to advocate on their own behalf.

As the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects continue to harm our neighborhoods and communities, this moment is as important as ever for service providers to engage the voices of constituents and clients and build advocacy partnerships and coalitions. Building voice and power is critical to make change by conveying the lived realities of those most impacted by poverty. In their unique roles as service providers, these essential workers have the opportunity to elevate the voices of their constituents to advocate on their own behalf for stronger social safety net programs, livable wages, affordable healthcare access, paid family leave, paid medical leave, and equitable policies.  

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