The U.S. has the strongest economy in the world but higher levels of child hunger and poverty than almost any other high-income country. Two programs can help – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) and the Child Tax Credit.
Food benefits through SNAP have been increased by the biggest margin in U.S. history. And the recent expansion of the Child Tax Credit, introduced as part of the American Rescue Plan, changes the way the tax credit is delivered and has the potential to cut child poverty in half.
There’s just one problem: the Child Tax Credit expansion is temporary.
The future of the Child Tax Credit, a sliver of the $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill, is in the hands of Congress right now.
As a pastor, I know many families who struggle to put food on the table. They often have to choose between food, rent, electricity or school supplies. This is the reality for millions of Americans.
The recent expansion of the Child Tax Credit, introduced as part of the American Rescue Plan, changes the way the tax credit is delivered and has the potential to cut child poverty in half.
Unless we act fast to make it permanent, it will quickly fall away, throwing millions of families and children back into food insecurity and poverty.
There are a lot of good arguments for extending the Child Tax Credit expansion. One is that child hunger and poverty are far costlier than most people realize. One study estimates the economic losses to the U.S. incurred by child hunger and poverty at more than $1 trillion per year; these losses are mostly due to lack of future workforce productivity and the costly impact of poverty and hunger on our healthcare system.
In 2020, the federal government’s rapid and largely successful response to the economic fallout from COVID-19 demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that, with the right political will, Congress and the federal government can cross traditional partisan divides in a crisis. Child hunger and poverty are one crisis we can address.
Most importantly: these benefit expansions work. The monthly increases in SNAP benefits have data-driven research behind them and help low-income families purchase nutritious meals, which benefits our nation’s overall health care.
While no plan on this scale can be perfect, the expanded Child Tax Credit has a dramatic success story to tell. Just by making the Child Tax Credit refundable, and thus available even to families that don’t file taxes, this crucial benefit has the potential to reach 27 million children living in families that previously did not qualify.
What’s more, the new method of disbursing the Child Tax Credit in monthly distributions has already had a considerable effect on reducing child hunger, and the direct effect of these benefits on child poverty almost could not be overstated. A recent study by Gregory Acs and Kevin Werner of the Urban Institute projects that continuing the expanded Child Tax Credit beyond 2021 would reduce the child poverty rate by an astounding 40 percent.
The fight against long-standing societal ills like child poverty and hunger isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. Together, the increased SNAP benefits and the expansion of the Child Tax Credit will do more to reduce child hunger and poverty than any other policy change in more than 50 years. But almost everything will depend on whether an expansion of the Child Tax Credit is extended beyond the one year it was authorized.
Rev. Eugene Cho is president and CEO of Bread for the World.