If there is a silver lining to the trauma inflicted by the pandemic, it is that our country rallied to meet the human needs on an unprecedented scale: donations to food banks; contributions to charities; federal assistance; and offers of time and service to help others all increased. As the leaders of national faith-based organizations, we know firsthand that moments of crisis also create unexpected opportunities for unity and hope, and this was certainly one of them.
How else can we explain that the United States has lifted more than 4 million children out of poverty over the past year? At a moment when our nation suffered the sharpest increase in overall poverty since the federal government began tracking that figure, we all chose to focus on the wellbeing of children. As a result, we could see the child poverty rate drop by 40 percent.
But this was no accident. Far from it. It was due to the efforts of organizations, churches, individuals and government bodies at every level. But one key element was clearly the expanded child tax credit, which reflected a national commitment to recognizing the importance of families. The relief package passed by Congress increased the benefit to $3,000 from $2,000 for children 17 and younger, and it provided an additional $600 credit for kids under the age of 6. All of this made a difference.
Furthermore, by adjusting the rules by which families receive money, 27 million kids at the low end of the poverty scale are now eligible to receive the entire benefit. In economic speak, the expanded credit became “fully refundable.” And as a result, the credit now reaches some 65 million children, which is roughly 90 percent of the youth in our country.
Another key change is that parents receive monthly installments instead of an annual lump sum. That empowers them to make better decisions and budget more wisely, all of which helps ensure that the financial assistance is spent on exactly what is needed.
In our judgment, these initial results have been excellent. The rate of food insecurity has been significantly reduced, and families are now better able to provide the basic necessities that many of us take for granted. Fewer children are going to bed hungry or living with the fear of homelessness, and fewer parents are having to make agonizing decisions about whether to buy prescriptions or pay the electric bill.
Some worry that these changes have taken away the work requirement for parents, thereby creating an incentive to stay home and pocket the money. But we don’t see that happening. In fact, we believe that in most cases, the money is being spent in the way it was intended — to support children.
We also understand that the price tag is high. The Joint Committee on Taxation has said that a four-year extension will cost approximately $556 billion. But we believe it’s a good investment, as the combined effects of child poverty cost our country $500 billion each year.
With encouraging results and positive projections like these, we urge Congress to work together to permanently extend the child tax credit. If the support it now provides to families disappears at the end of this year, so too will the remarkable reversal in child poverty that we have seen so far. We must give the program the time it needs to make a lasting impact. While progress has been made, the homelessness of families remains a pressing concern. Studies show that children who spend half their lives in poverty are far more likely to remain in poverty as adults, creating an intergenerational cycle that goes on and on. Now is the time to stop it.
Of course, the solution is complex, and there is no single program that will eliminate it. We at The Salvation Army and the National Association of Evangelicals certainly pledge to do everything we can to attack the problem of child poverty. And we are hopeful. Working together, we are convinced that faith-based organizations, community groups, government at all levels, and individual men and women of goodwill can accomplish what had once been considered unthinkable.
Is there a wiser use of our resources — both from an economic and a moral standpoint — than to invest in our children? If we do, the awful tragedy of COVID-19 can be turned into a small victory for all of our children — and our future.
Commissioner Kenneth Hodder is the national commander of The Salvation Army, the largest nongovernmental provider of social services in the country. Walter Kim is the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents more than 45,000 local churches and 40 denominations.