The future of this critical antipoverty measure is now being debated: Late last Friday night, House Democrats unveiled legislation that would extend the credit through 2025. And on Monday, congressional tax writers laid out a plan to pay for this and other programs in the reconciliation package with sound, sensible, and needed revenue measures.
As Democrats work out the details of their long-term budget plans, I hope lawmakers find the fiscal resources to make the expanded credit permanent. But in the near-term, it is imperative that Congress make full refundability permanent.
Without refundability, the credit is helpful chiefly for middle-class families. But it does not provide equal benefits to America’s lowest-income families. Before the credit was made fully refundable earlier this year, the parents of some 27 million children received a reduced credit or no credit at all. That number included roughly half of all Black and Latino children and half of all children in rural communities.
Think about those numbers. The credit helped many kids, but left behind those who need it most. Full refundability is therefore essential to fulfilling the potential of the child tax credit: nearly halving child poverty in America, supporting struggling parents and reducing racial disparities.
House Democrats have proposed extending the expanded credit — $3,000 for children between ages 6 and 17, and $3,600 for kids under 6 — for four years and making refundability permanent. This is a sound and important proposal. But as lawmakers debate the extension, three concerns recur: inflation, disincentives to employment, and general cost.
All three fears are misplaced. The refundable child tax credit is not inflationary if paid for; is not a disincentive to work; and ought to be viewed as a public investment with a high rate of return.
Concerns about inflation are pervasive today, but the child tax credit is not inflationary if paid for with new revenue. There is plenty of room to raise taxes on a progressive basis, without economically harmful effects, and there are many revenue options that would be constructive for our economy when used for investments that broaden opportunity. Income and capital gains tax rates are historically low. House Democrats have proposed raising the top long-term capital gains rate to 25 percent from 20 percent and imposing a new 3 percent income surtax on individuals earning over $5 million a year.
I support all of this. Highly profitable corporations — whose success often traces back to public investment in research, technology, infrastructure and education — can and should pay more to support those very investments. Raising the corporate tax rate to 26.5 percent, as has been proposed by House tax writers, is also economically sensible.
Fears of discouraging work are also unfounded. A National Academy of Sciences panel found that with the new credit, 99.5 percent of parents would remain employed. Canada recently expanded its version of the child credit, and an evaluation found no reduction in work at all; in fact, employment rates among mothers increased. This should be no surprise: By helping to pay for child care, health care and other costs of child-rearing, the credit makes it easier on parents to get and keep a job.
Finally, the refundable credit is a wise national investment. Contrary to concerns about misuse, evidence from past experiments and the first round of payments families received in July shows that the vast majority of low-income families spend the money on food, rent, school supplies and other basic needs. A refundable child tax credit can decrease infant mortality; improve the health and life expectancy of poor children and their parents; reduce exposure to abuse and neglect; reduce long-term health-care costs; and increase the future productivity, earnings and tax payments of child beneficiaries. Columbia’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy estimates that the child tax credit’s societal benefits outweigh its costs by 8 to 1.
That’s a very good return on investment and helps explain why many other countries have similar policies to the credit and, as a result, far lower levels of child poverty. But in America, 1 in 7 children live in poverty. In the wealthiest country in the world, I’ve long believed that’s a moral outrage. It’s also a major economic impediment.
Equipping low-income children to thrive in the workforce is critical to achieving long-term growth. We can afford to offer every low-income child the full benefits of the child tax credit — and we can afford to pay for it. Doing less hurts them, and us, all.