The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

West Virginia moms lobby lawmakers to resume expanded child tax credit payments

Mothers from West Virginia meeting with lawmakers Feb. 2 about expanding the child tax credit program arranged 500 teddy bears on the National Mall, each representing 100 of the state's children who could slip back into poverty. (Kyle Swenson/The Washington Post)

This time it was teddy bears.

They had already tried so much. They had collected signatures on petitions and sent email blasts. They had tried to catch viral fire with hashtags on social media and mailed out handmade blankets. They had set up conference calls with lawmakers, always asking schedulers for the latest possible time slot, to accommodating working parents, calls that some joined from the pediatrician’s waiting room or while picking a child up from school.

Since the summer, these West Virginia parents have done whatever they could to explain the importance of the expanded child tax credit program. Those efforts had been shot through with urgency since the program expired in December, largely because of the opposition of the group’s own senator, Joe Manchin III (D).

So now teddy bears.

Wednesday morning they were arrayed on the National Mall, on folding tables, in laundry baskets and on the grass with the U.S. Capitol building in the background. There were pink bears and bears with top hats, bears wearing bow ties and bears with kilts, white bears and brown bears and bears in overalls.

“Each of these bears represents 100 children,” Amy Jo Hutchison, a Wheeling mother and organizer of the event, said during a brief rally with a half-dozen other “Mama Bears” who had made the trip to Washington. “Together these 500 bears represent the 50,000 West Virginia kiddos who have been pushed back into poverty since the halt of the child tax credit payments.”

When the program launched in July, monthly payments of up to $300 per child began helping families patch the holes in their monthly budgets. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has estimated that maintaining the expanded version of the credit would cut child poverty by 40 percent, compared with reverting to the credit’s less generous form. For millions of Americans, the monthly checks helped pay for everyday items and essentials, including the women speaking at the Mall.

After Hutchison’s short speech, a handful of other women spoke. Then the contingent headed to the U.S. Capitol, where they were scheduled to visit the offices of their congressional delegation: Manchin and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R); and Reps. David B. McKinley (R), Alex Mooney (R) and Carol Miller (R).

The day in D.C. asked more than just the women’s time and travel. Their meetings with congressional staff members were an opportunity to shorten the distance between policy and everyday life. But that also required an honesty and openness about their own struggles, one mother’s noticing how her 12-year-old was starting to check price tags at the grocery store, or how a daughter now worried whether there was enough gas in the car. Here the women had to share what others could afford to keep to themselves.

“I’m a private person,” Stormy Johnson said later. “This is really hard. At no point in time do we want to broadcast our vulnerability and the struggles that we are going through and our children are facing. This shouldn’t be a thing. We shouldn’t have to do this.”

Still, they shared their stories. Melanie Braun talked about how she had five children, including two with autism. The oldest lived in an apartment on his own, and the child tax credit payments had helped her pay for a caregiver.

Meghan Hullinger said the school district her two children attend didn’t have a mask mandate to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. “My daughter has been quarantined six times,” she said.

The consensus among the women was that the visits went well. Only one member of the delegation — Miller — met with the mothers; the others dispatched staffers.

Tatum Wallace, Miller’s communications director, noted in a statement that Miller “was happy to meet with some of West Virginia’s moms in Washington. As a mother and grandmother, she understands their concerns.”

A Manchin spokesperson said that the senator “has always supported the existing child tax credit that is still in place,” and that the senator “continues to support policies that reward hard-working families as the effects of costly inflation taxes strain their budgets.”

Kelley Moore, a spokesperson for Capito, noted that the senator in 2017 supported increasing the maximum child tax credit from $1,000 to $2,000 and that Capito “will continue working to enact policies that support parents and children across West Virginia.”

But whether the child tax credit could survive as a separate bill or as part of the reconciliation process if the Build Back Better legislation passes in some form, the women left the Capitol unsure whether they had made an impact.

“I didn’t get a real clear idea how they were trying to move forward,” Dana Phillips said. “It was all just extremely vague.”

They also said their visit to the center of American power reinforced how far away it all seemed from their daily lives. Even getting around D.C. — needing a credit card to check into the hotel, a ride-hailing app to get around — was different from home, Hutchison said, not to mention the process of accessing a member of Congress.

“I wouldn’t have known you had to work with a scheduler to talk to someone. We don’t even know where the hell the buildings are, we’re so detached from the way all this works,” she said. “It’s just not a system designed to be accessed by average working people.”

Read more:

The child tax credit payments are ending. Some families say they will struggle without them.