What the Child Tax Credit fight says about America

For some of us, Jan. 15 was simply last Saturday. For those struggling to make ends meet during a health crisis, however, Jan. 15 marked the beginning of a return to poverty. 

Since July 2021, families have relied on advance payments of the expanded Child Tax Credit — distributed on the 15th of each month — to feed, clothe and safely house their children. But no help came this past week because we let the expanded credit expire during an unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, and with prices rising on everything from groceries to utility bills.  

Whether our elected officials summon the will to resurrect this life-sustaining support for families will demonstrate the extent of our commitment to ending child poverty in this nation for good.   

An expanded Child Tax Credit was a centerpiece of the American Rescue Plan Act. The law increased the maximum amount from $2,000 to $3,000 for each child ages 6-17, and from $2,000 to $3,600 for each child under age 6. Perhaps even more significantly, the credit was made fully refundable — for the first time, those with no or very low wages could receive the full amount. And recipients no longer had to wait until tax filing season to receive a lump sum; up to half of the amount was distributed via monthly payments to help families cover immediate expenses.  

These changes worked quickly. Weeks after the first advance payment was issued, those reporting challenges feeding their families dropped by 24 percent, driven by people at the lowest wage levels taking advantage of additional spending power. The expanded credit kept at least 3 million children out of poverty every month between July and November, leading to a 30 percent decline in child poverty rates overall. Rarely, if ever, in our nation’s history has a policy change had such dramatic effects in such a short time. 

This help came at a crucial moment. Since the start of the pandemic, children and families of color have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and those with low wages have been hit hardest by the resulting economic fallout. These are the same families for whom — pandemic or no pandemic — every day can be a crisis: In 2020, poverty rates among both Blacks and Latinos were more than double those of whites, while children of color accounted for more than 70 percent of children living in poverty. No one deserves to live in poverty, but the structural racism and discrimination that continue to plague our nation give it a distinct color: Even before the pandemic, poverty affected 1 in 5 Black children, more than 1 in 5 Latino children and 1 in 5 children in immigrant families, compared with 1 in 12 white children.   

As a pediatrician who provides care to many uninsured children and a scholar who addressed racial and ethnic inequities in the National Academies’ 2019 A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty report, respectively, we see how our nation relegates those of certain races, wage levels and immigration backgrounds to secondhand status. It is because of our policy choices that these populations are not only more likely to live in poverty, but also have higher rates of chronic disease and ultimately shorter lives. The impact of poverty on children — developmental delays, fewer years of educational attainment, mental health effects — can have lifelong repercussions. 

The past six months have offered a fleeting glimpse of how we can meaningfully reduce child poverty; studies project that in a typical year, the expanded Child Tax Credit could reduce child poverty by at least 40 percent. But there is more we can do to maximize its potential, from making it easier for the people at the lowest income levels to verify their eligibility to repealing a provision of a 2017 law that makes children without Social Security numbers ineligible. We should reject far less equitable proposals, such as imposing work requirements on eligibility, which would disproportionately affect children of color and those further from economic opportunity. Work requirements for economic assistance programs often make it harder, not easier, for people to secure employment and attain self-sufficiency. 

Of course, no single policy can eradicate poverty on its own. There is more we must do. The permanent increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits enacted last year should have a demonstrable impact, but those higher benefits still fall short of average meals costs in more than 20 percent of U.S. counties. SNAP benefits should cover meal costs for families no matter where they live.

Families who pay taxes but do not have Social Security numbers should also be eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit, one of our most effective anti-poverty programs.

The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 per hour for more than a decade; a full-time federal minimum wage worker is just barely above the poverty threshold, and a single parent with just one dependent is below it. To reduce poverty and improve health, the minimum wage must become a living wage.

Health insurance, paid family and medical leave, affordable child care and safe and secure housing should not be luxuries reserved only for those with means or those living in certain states, but guarantees for every family in this nation. All of these measures together are part of what it takes to eliminate poverty in America.      

We are under no illusions of the difficulty of securing even a temporary extension of the expanded Child Tax Credit — President Biden confirmed as much during his Wednesday news conference — let alone realizing this broader policy agenda.  

But whether it takes a month, a year, or a generation, we must keep up the fight. This nation should not stand for even one child living in poverty, and that should start with a permanent and more equitable expansion of the Child Tax Credit. We can either build on this progress or cast it aside. Our choice will show who we are and what kind of country we want for our children.  

Richard E. Besser, a physician, is president and chief executive of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Twitter: @DrRichBesser

Dolores Acevedo-Garcia is Samuel F. and Rose B. Gingold Professor of Human Development and Social Policy, and Director of the Institute for Child, Youth and Family Policy at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, at Brandeis University. Twitter: @DAcevedoGarcia

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