The credit provides up to $300 per month per child to most families. But, beginning in 2022, the credit will shrink in value, families will face restricted eligibility requirements, and the credit will revert to a once-a-year payment rather than a monthly check. Efforts to extend the new credit have bogged down over its $100 billion annual price tag and whether lawmakers should tighten eligibility requirements. As with the entire package, inflation fears and budget deficits are delaying its extension.
Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) has raised two concerns. First, he says, “There’s no work requirements whatsoever. . . . Don’t you think, if we’re going to help the children, that the people should make some effort?” Second, he would like to restrict the program to help only families with incomes of about $60,000 or less.
The senator is raising valid questions about whether an extended credit would cause parents to work less. But my strong view is that it would not; and more targeting would be a mistake, hurting both children — and the broader economy.
The credit is already a huge success. It is, by itself, expected to lower the national poverty rate by nearly a percentage point. In regions where poverty is most common, the decline would be even more pronounced; in West Virginia, experts anticipate a decline in the child poverty rate from 13 percent to 7 percent.
With the new credit, parents get money whether they work or not, raising annual income by $3,600 per child under age 6 and by $3,000 for older children. It phases out for those with the highest incomes.
Some economists predict that without a minimum income requirement parents will work less. Some go so far as to claim that parents in deep poverty will work less if the credit is extended, choosing to stay in deep poverty.
But this analysis approaches the question backward: No child chooses their parents; no child decides if a parent works. And this is a child tax credit, not a parental workforce credit. It is policymakers who face a choice: Do you stand by and let roughly one-quarter of Black and Hispanic children continue to live in poverty?
In addition to fighting poverty, the credit supports parents who do work. Currently, two parents with joint income under $150,000 or single parents with income under $112,500, receive the full amount of the monthly credit. The top fifth of all families are ineligible for the full credit. A tighter income means test would punish parents who are already working hard to get ahead.
That’s because workers in households with low to moderate incomes, who are often eligible for other government assistance, such as health insurance subsidies, food stamps and housing vouchers, lose those benefits as their earnings from work increase. Each program has its own rules for the phaseout, referred to as a “benefit cliff.”
Example: A single mother of two young children in West Virginia, whose earnings from work increase from $55,000 to $65,000, would lose some health insurance subsidies. So, while her paycheck goes up $10,000, the lost benefits mean that her family’s income increases by only $8,000. That’s an implicit tax of 20 percent on her promotion. Lowering the income maximum for the child tax credit to $60,000, as Manchin suggested, would cut another $500 — a further challenge to rising into the middle class.
And $60,000 doesn’t go as far in some places as it might in West Virginia. That income in Arizona, Florida and Virginia buys about 10 to 15 percent less than it does in West Virginia. In California and New York, it buys about one-third less. Manchin’s idea of a reasonable ceiling should be better aligned with cost of living, which varies from place to place. Is it good policy to base our help for the neediest cases on prices in states with the lowest cost of living?
Families trying to raise children in high-cost areas are often the teachers, nurses’ assistants and service workers who are the backbone of local economies. They deserve our support, too.
A near-universal child tax credit, as is currently in place, is money well spent on lifting children out of poverty and supporting working parents. It is a smart investment in our current workforce — and in the next generation.