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Opinion Manchin’s work requirement for child benefits would throw grandparent-led families under the bus

Melissa Boyles of West Virginia with her granddaughter, Nevaeh. (Family photo)

“Why should my granddaughter be punished because of my disability?”

That’s the question West Virginia resident Melissa Boyles would ask Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and any other politicians advocating work requirements for Democrats’ child benefit program — conditions that would throw Boyles’s granddaughter under the bus.

Boyles, 62, is among an unsung generation of Americans caring for their grandchildren. These households have swelled over the past decade, as public health crises such as the opioid epidemic claimed the lives of many parents of young kids, and rendered other parents unable to provide stable homes.

As of 2019, roughly 6.2 million children lived with grandparents; within that population, 1.1 million had no parents present in the household. The numbers have likely grown since covid-19 struck.

Grandparents are often neither physically nor financially prepared to raise another child. Some are still working, but most grandparents responsible for their grandchildren are no longer in the labor force. They’re often retired, disabled or both.

Such is the case of Boyles, who lives with her husband, Michael, in Clarksburg, W.Va.

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Both spouses had worked, but now Melissa, a former house cleaner and hospice worker, has a herniated disk and some psychological issues exacerbated by the sudden death of her son in 2005; Michael, who worked at the union local, has had multiple strokes and has reduced lung function due to complications from bypass surgery.

Even with their disability benefits, money has been tight for a while. But when her then-14-year-old granddaughter, Nevaeh, asked to live with them last year, Melissa didn’t hesitate.

“She needed better care and wasn’t getting it,” Boyles said.

Nevaeh, like many children, landed with her grandparents after a series of traumas: first the loss of her father, when she was a baby; then her mother, when Nevaeh was a teen; then unsafe conditions living with another relative, including inconsistent access to food.

Boyles wasn’t sure how she’d manage another mouth to feed. Especially since paying off her mortgage — which she thought had been financially responsible — rendered her ineligible for food stamps, thanks to the program’s asset limits. Boyles began receiving a monthly caretaker’s stipend of about $400 from the state, but it wasn’t enough to cover her additional expenses.

“She needs clothes. She needs things for school. She needs shoes for her feet. She needs food in her belly,” Boyles told me.

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Then, this year, a godsend: Lawmakers temporarily expanded the existing child tax credit into a more generous benefit, which would be disbursed monthly. They also made the benefit available to those suffering the most from poverty, including those who make too little money to file a tax return. Nevaeh’s family became eligible for $250 per month, no strings attached. (Children under 6 receive $300 per month.)

Boyles has devoted some of that $250 to food (maybe even an occasional steak, for special occasions) and a new bed. Mostly, the cash goes toward the odds and ends of American childhood: tickets to a high school football game, so Nevaeh can finally attend with her friends. Or last weekend, a homecoming dress, purchased for $70 at a consignment shop.

Other grandparents (and parents) I’ve interviewed over recent months describe similar, kid-specific budgeting. Sandra Westrand, a retired 72-year-old in Spokane, Wash., devoted most of one month’s benefit to 9-year-old Izaak’s Cub Scout dues and uniform; this month’s installment is earmarked for a new winter coat.

The December payment will go toward his Christmas present: a bike.

December will be everyone’s last monthly payment, though, with the balance of the child benefit to be disbursed next year at tax-filing time. After that, the expanded benefit expires.

Congress can, and should, extend it. The program has already lifted millions of children out of poverty; if extended, its long-term effect is estimated to slash child poverty by nearly half. This is a worthwhile investment, helping children grow up to be healthier, higher-earning adults.

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But Manchin has indicated that he’ll vote for extending the program only if, among other things, beneficiaries prove they are working.

This might sound reasonable. Especially in West Virginia, where both receipt of government benefits and skepticism about benefits are high. Even Boyles says she suspects many people are “sitting on their butts.” When pressed, she says she’s not sure how the state could easily distinguish between hardworking-but-unlucky families like hers and the slackers who want “handouts.”

Some states have experimented with adding work requirements to other benefits, with carve-outs for circumstances such as advanced age or disability. The results have been abysmal. Impenetrable red tape ended up purging eligible Arkansans off Medicaid, for example, without increasing employment. Sorting the “deserving” from the supposedly “undeserving” is complex for both the government and beneficiaries.

Households headed by disabled grandparents aren’t the only ones that stand to be hurt by work requirements. Lots of parents and other caretakers churn in and out of employment, often due to circumstances beyond their control. Documenting those circumstances is challenging.

A desire for work requirements may be well-intentioned. But it is likely to condemn Nevaeh, Izaak and many other children to poverty. None of them deserve it.