The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why success couldn’t save the child tax credit expansion

Melissa Roberts with her children in the backyard of their home in Mississippi in January. Roberts lost her job at an insurance company at the start of the pandemic and relied on the federal child tax credit to help provide for her children. (Andrea Morales for The Washington Post)
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In the spring of 2021, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was a worried man. In a book published this week, “This Will Not Pass,” New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns report the Senate minority leader told friends he believed the temporarily expanded child tax credit would prove so popular that even if Republicans retook the House in the 2022 elections, it would be too late to reverse the bill. The measure put hundreds of dollars a month in the pockets of U.S. families, and resulted in an almost immediate double-digit drop in the number of children living in poverty. How would Republicans counter that?

He got it wrong. The expansion was allowed to expire in December. Millions of households fell back into penury as quickly as they had been lifted out. The only scandal was that, contra McConnell’s fears, it wasn’t a scandal at all.

Instead, the saga of the tax credit instead demonstrated that the United States’ stated devotion to children is often so much cheap sentiment. In the face of evidence that a few hundred extra dollars boosts child welfare enormously, we continue to choose to keep our nation’s wallet snapped firmly shut.

Two recently released reports — one from the Brookings Institution, the other from the Center for Law and Social Policy — show how transformative the expanded child tax credit, passed as part of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan in the late winter of last year, was for millions of American families, providing not just money but security on multiple fronts.

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A reminder of how it all worked: Households earning less than $150,000 annually received $3,600 for children under the age of six, and $3,000 for those seven and up, much of the money coming in the form of a monthly stipend. Higher-income households received money on a sliding scale. In all, almost nine out of 10 families with children under the age of 18 received money from the program. (My husband and I were, for a short time, one of them — we received exactly one check before our younger son aged out.)

The studies show families used the temporary monthly stipend to pay routine household expenses, including rent, school supplies and extracurricular activities, and food — families receiving the credit reported they ate more balanced meals. (Yes, a bit more fast food was consumed compared to households not receiving the benefit — but so was more protein, fruits and vegetables.)

In fact, when Brookings compared households receiving the child tax credit with those that were ineligible, they found those who received the de facto allowance were more likely to pay down credit card bills and less likely to turn to payday loans to get by. Their chances of getting evicted were lower. They were also less likely to resort to such desperate measures as selling their blood plasma to raise cash.

Nonetheless, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), in particular, encouraged people to believe the myth of the slothful and lazy parent living high on the government hog. HuffPost reported that Manchin privately told people he believed families would use the money to buy drugs.

Manchin was far from the only villain here. Polls showed that many didn’t want to see the measure enacted permanently. (Seniors were particularly against it.) True, Americans are forever suspicious of someone receiving a helping hand — but, in this case, the people getting helped were often us, or our family members, or our friends. It just didn’t seem to matter. The fact that millions of families are now sliding back into precarious living conditions is garnering next to no outrage.

Attempts to bring the expansion back seem doomed to failure. The White House is increasingly convinced Manchin wants to make no deal at all on Biden’s Build Back Better bill, which would have renewed the policy. As for expanded child tax credit legislation sponsored by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), it would not only need to attract bipartisan support — something that’s highly unlikely — it contains a poison pill for Democrats in the form of doing away entirely with the federal tax break for up to $10,000 in state and local taxes.

It’s all penny-wise but pound-foolish. As I pointed out last year, academic research demonstrates that income supports for families lead to everything from improved infant birth weights to better high school graduation rates, as well as an increased likelihood of attending college. That, in turn, will massively benefit each and every one of us.

But none of those potential benefits can surmount our indifference to helping children and families. Look at our dismal track record. We’re the only first-world nation that doesn’t mandate paid family leave for new moms. We suffer the highest infant mortality rate of our peer countries. We pay their teachers less than others with similar education credentials, and our nation’s response to mass school shootings is to offer thoughts and prayers.

When you view it through that prism, the surprise isn’t that the expanded child tax credit was allowed to expire. It’s that it ever happened at all.