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The child tax credit is alive for now — let’s keep it that way

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Key moments of the Civil Rights Movement were often invoked in recent months, as the Biden administration reached critical junctures in advancing an equity-based agenda. The recent debate over the extension of the child tax credit, which was extended for another year in the Build Back Better framework on Thursday, is no exception.

As a daughter of Robert F. Kennedy and a former aide to the late senator, we are direct products of this era, able to place ourselves on the peripheries of some of the events now told in history books.  

For both of us, a particular day stands out from April 1967, one that profoundly affected Kennedy’s life, and ours, impressing upon us why economic and social reforms must work in tandem. 

As part of the War on Poverty, Kennedy, a member of the Senate subcommittee on Employment, Manpower and Poverty, traveled the country, visiting forgotten corners of the deep South, ‘coal country,’ and Native American reservations that many lawmakers representing those areas had never visited.  

This particular afternoon, Kennedy entered a crumbling shack in Cleveland, Miss. to find a 20-month-old Black boy scratching at the dirt floor, searching for crumbs of rice and cornbread. 

The boy’s eyes were dulled, his stomach distended from malnourishment. Kennedy crouched down, stroking the boy’s face and hair and spoke softly to him, wiping tears from his eyes as he left. 

The day weighed heavily on Kennedy as he returned home to find his own 10 children in the midst of a chaotic and plentiful evening meal.  

“I’ve just been to a part of our country where three families lived in a room the size of this,” he told them. “You’ve got to help these children.”

This entreaty was about more than changing policy, even though the Delta trip ultimately resulted in the expansion of the federal food stamp experiment into a national program.  

What Kennedy came to see clearly through these travels was that America’s problems are tightly interwoven by the threads of race and poverty. That the criminalization of the poor happens at intersectional oppressions of race, class, gender. 

More than a half-century after his death, this criminalization is even starker in some respects, with the neglected and exploited groups that achieved some visibility through the War on Poverty and then pushed further to the margins.  

The rate of Black homeownership — the greatest wealth creator for middle-class families — is lower today than when the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968. 

During the Clinton era, the poorest Americans, many of them low-income women and especially among communities of color, were stripped of help when the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families replaced our only national cash assistance program.  

In the 25 years since the gap between America’s rich and poor has only grown wider. This point is not simply about disparities, but about a basic quality of life that should be provided to all of our citizens, one that became tangible this year through an expanded and enhanced child tax credit.

Living with very little cash in our country is overwhelmingly difficult, grueling for parents and destructive for children’s health and well-being.

Today, low-income children across the country face a chronic lack of access to both educational opportunities and quality health care. As they grow up, they’re far more statistically likely to be arrested, jailed, sentenced to prison and killed by police. And when they try to vote to seek change, they face disproportionate barriers at the ballot box.

Until recently, the United States was the only industrialized nation not to have cash assistance for all children and their parents. As awareness grew of COVID-19’s disproportionate effect on the poor, Black and Latinx families, organizing in Congress brought the child tax credit to law in the American Rescue Plan, providing a floor of support for the poorest children and families. Still, this “guarantee” is set to last only through 2022, according to the framework of the $1.75 trillion proposal released on Thursday by Democrats.  

While the structure is in place for the child tax to continue permanently, new money must be appropriated beyond next year in order for the credit to be renewed. This is a critical next step of historic importance, one which would finally provide a permanent base of protection to low-income children. 

Parents without jobs, previously solely reliant on food stamps, under the child tax credit could see their income nearly double in immediate cash that can be used on a household’s needs, including paying the rent in a tight situation. What’s more, the move is predicted to reduce overall child poverty by an astonishing 40 percent. 

As Congress finalizes this spending plan, it’s up to all of us to continue to push for the credit’s permanent extension, and for other bold economic and social reforms that approach equity and justice in a holistic and ambitious way that’s rooted in civic engagement.

That means shoring up Medicare and Medicaid. Raising the subminimum wage. Expanding efforts on childcare, housing, homelessness and working to end mass incarceration. Providing a pathway to citizenship for immigrant communities.

David White, the boy Kennedy encountered in Mississippi, is now a grown man in his mid-50s. He didn’t die of starvation, Kennedy biographer Ellen Meacham found after nearly seven years of searching. White now lives in Greenville, Miss., where he’s recently worked as a cook at a restaurant and convenience store.  

Still, he is cognizant of the sad reality that his life could have been filled with many more opportunities, such as a better chance to finish high school and find a more stable, high-paying job, had he not been born poor and Black in America. 

In our decades of work in human rights and social justice, we have seen firsthand that all major societal changes come not because governments or corporations sought them, but because people organized together and voted, harnessed dreams of change and made them come true.

Today, thanks to a great racial reckoning, the criminalization of poverty has accumulated a consciousness far from where it was before Ferguson and the death of George Floyd. 

Just like America’s problems, its solutions must come from a seamless garment of legislation, administrative steps, litigation and community action. We must work together to demand better, to fill in the remaining pieces of the puzzle.  

We owe this to White, and to so many others who deserve a better chance than the lot they’ve been dealt.

This is not just Kennedy’s legacy. It’s all of ours. 

Kerry Kennedy is president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. Peter Edelman is the Carmack Waterhouse professor of Law and Public Policy at Georgetown University Law Center.

Editor’s Note: This was updated to reflect the child tax credit was extended as part of the Build Back Better Framework.

Tags Child poverty Economic inequality Extreme poverty Incarceration in the United States Kennedy family Poverty Robert F. Kennedy Tax credit

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