Congress has a historic opportunity to lift children out of poverty

Congress has a historic opportunity to lift children out of poverty

Before the pandemic, nearly 11 million children lived in poverty in America — about one in seven children, making children the poorest age group in our country. And, of course, during the pandemic, we know that the overall poverty rate has risen. In the wealthiest nation in the world, leaving so many kids in poverty is not just an embarrassment, it is a scandal. 

Child poverty is not inevitable, whether there is a pandemic or not. It is a political and societal choice, and a cruel and deeply short-sighted one.  

Common sense tells us, but research also has proven, that growing up in poverty, even for short periods of time, has costly long-term consequences on a child’s education, health and income. Reducing suffering and improving the quality of life of children is the obvious moral choice, but here’s the thing: We also know that it is the smart choice for our economy. Low-income families will spend new income far more quickly than wealthy families that do not need the cash. 

That’s why the plan to significantly improve the Child Tax Credit (CTC) in the coronavirus stimulus package is such an important and historic opportunity. It should become law. The tax credit is pro-family, ensuring critical financial help for the basic costs of raising children. A strong Child Tax Credit is one of the most effective policy prescriptions for reducing the scourge of child poverty.  

This CTC increase, proposed by President Biden this year but long supported by key children’s champions in Congress, is one of several important measures in the stimulus package. This new CTC would quickly put money in the pockets of deserving families with dependent children at a time when they need it most, and would cut child poverty nearly in half — by 45 percent — in the short term, from 13.6 percent of all kids to 7.5 percent. For some groups of kids, the reduction would be even more dramatic.

The new CTC, although temporary, makes three critical reforms. First, it increases the credit amount, which is currently $2,000 per child under age 17, to $3,600 for children under 6, and to $3,000 for children ages 6 through 17. That’s not to cover the full cost of parenting, of course, but the increase will make a real difference for the well-being of millions of children. 

Second, the new CTC would make the credit fully refundable, which means that families with young kids would get the full credit even if they earn too little to owe taxes. That’s a bold reform that has been sorely needed for years.

And third, the new CTC would pay its benefits on a monthly basis, not annually. After all, groceries, electricity, heat and rent have to be paid every month — the money to pay them should be available every month, too.

The new CTC would be a lifesaving boost to families and our economy. The pandemic has been hard on most Americans, creating unprecedented insecurity. Census data collected in November, as just one example, found that 72 percent of adults reported difficulty paying for household expenses. For low-income families with young children, the challenges have been particularly hard, and the stress has been compounded by closed schools and uncertain, or unavailable, child care. Our children are facing significant learning loss, behavioral challenges and worsening health problems. If we really want to help families with children right now, the reformed CTC must be a central component of COVID response.

This one reform won’t end the tragedy of child poverty or the many challenges of raising a family on a low income. After Congress raises the Child Tax Credit, there are other important steps to take to show that when politicians say children are our future, they really mean it. But when such a straightforward proposal to cut child poverty nearly in half stares us in the face, future generations will judge us harshly if we don’t seize this historic opportunity.