When I started talking last year about how the tax code penalizes single parents, I was told that improvements to the system had already been made. Here’s how this is true: Single parents used to be treated as single people, meaning the cutoff for receiving help was half that available to married parents. Now, we are treated as halfway between single and married.
Halfway to equal treatment isn’t good enough. Children in single-parent families have the same needs for food, housing and health care as kids with married parents. If our tax code is going to help families, all families at the same income level should get the same amount of help. That’s fair, plain and simple.
The recent news about the decline in the U.S. birthrate underscores that children are critical to our nation’s economy — and future prosperity. The cost of raising a child from birth to age 18 averages well over $200,000. Increases in child-care, health-care and housing expenses drive that cost higher.
Congress created the child tax credit in 1997 to address how hard it is to afford raising a family in our country. Over and over, Congress has reinforced this tax credit, including expanding it in March as part of the American Rescue Plan Act. But every time it took those steps, ostensibly to help kids, Congress would do a bit less for children whose parents are not married.
Children in single-parent families often need more help than those in married households. Yet elected officials, most of whom have websites featuring their postcard-perfect spouse and children, punish single-parent families with an unfair threshold to receive the child tax credit.
In its latest iteration, married couples filing their taxes jointly can claim the full credit if they make no more than $150,000 per year. However, for families with a parent filing as head of household — the status most commonly used by single parents — the cutoff to get the full amount of help is lower: $112,500. This tax season, that means hundreds of thousands of single-parent families will not get help.
I’ve called this the “single-parent penalty,” but actually those who are hurt are children — the kids who receive less help than goes to children in married households. Even when the single-parent family earns much less, its members miss out on a benefit that goes to a higher-earning married family. Single parents are often more financially vulnerable because they have a higher risk of income interruption and additional need for paid child care. There is no single-parent discount for groceries, child care or doctors’ bills. The child tax credit exists to improve children’s well-being. No child should have fewer opportunities for nutritious food, good housing and quality care because her parents are not married.
The truth is that the single-parent penalty is rooted in outdated ideas about what kinds of families are valid. The discrepancy was a policy choice. Lawmakers decided more than two decades ago that kids in single-parent families were less deserving of help because of their parents’ decisions. To children, many things can feel unfair — but government help that’s allocated based on their parents’ marital status genuinely is unequal treatment.
This unfair policy should end. In 2021, we can and should make a different choice. As Congress and the president consider proposals to keep the expanded child tax credit in our post-pandemic tax code, lawmakers should remove the single-parent penalty. This would let go of a judgmental policy as to which families our country does or doesn’t value.
I am introducing legislation this week to end the single-parent penalty for the child tax credit with Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), who was raised by a single mom, and Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), the chair of the Joint Economic Committee. Our bill affirms that every child in need should get help. Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that legislation would give relief to more than 400,000 families that are currently ineligible solely because the parents happen to be unmarried.
Giving our children what they need to thrive is one of the best investments we can make in our country’s future. If legislators are serious about helping all American kids, we need to retire the single-parent penalty.