The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion One way to stamp out child poverty

Children receive a free lunch at the Phoenix Day @ Central Park Youth Program in downtown Phoenix in 2014. (Matt York/AP)

A new study from the New York Times and research group Child Trends suggests that child poverty has plummeted in the United States, dropping 59 percent between 1993 and 2019. But the job is not finished; some 11 percent of children remained poor in 2019. That number is higher depending on which child poverty measure one uses. Which is why it is inexcusable that Congress recently let expire one of the most potent programs the nation has to lift children out of poverty: a generous child tax credit.

Unbridgeable ideological divides are not to blame; both Democrats and Republicans favor beefing up the credit. The outlines of a deal are obvious.

There also is no uncertainty about what expanding the child tax credit would accomplish. Lawmakers temporarily enhanced the support in 2021, giving the neediest families reliable monthly payments according to how many children they had. Along with making the maximum per-child payment more generous, they fixed a kink in the law that funneled more money to those with higher incomes than to the poorest, which had shortchanged some 27 million children. The result: Child poverty dropped by nearly half in 2021, to a record low of 5.2 percent.

Press Enter to skip to end of carousel
Editorial Board coverage on inequality and poverty
The wealth gap in the United States is growing. In “Sharing the Wealth,” a project published in 2021, the Editorial Board looked at wealth inequality — and ways to fix it.
Globally, hundreds of millions of people came out of poverty between 2006 and 2016 — but the covid-19 pandemic set back that progress. Expanded and sustained international cooperation is integral to eradicating poverty around the world, the Editorial Board has argued.
The country’s welfare programs help millions of people — but are also often complex, unresponsive and lack oversight. As a recent, sprawling scandal in Mississippi demonstrates, this can lead to inefficiencies — and even grift.
In more welcome news, child poverty rates plummeted between 1993 and 2019. But there is more work to be done — and one of the most powerful tools to lift children out of poverty is a generous child tax credit. The Editorial Board has called on Congress to beef it up.


End of carousel

Democrats sought to extend this expansion in a big party-line spending bill, but senators failed to agree on the plan. Instead, they let the single-year expansion expire. This year’s child poverty rate is no doubt heading back toward 2019’s level in response.

Critics worry that expanding the tax credit discouraged work, because families could claim the maximum amount regardless of their income. If they paid less in federal income taxes than the amount they would get in aid, the government gave them the balance. This could really add up; Congress boosted the maximum credit to $3,600 per 0-to-5-year-old and to $3,000 per 6-to-17-year-old. This might have made it more attractive for some parents to stay home rather than continue working for little money.

Initial studies have found that these employment effects were actually pretty small, possibly in part because the expansion was temporary. Making it permanent might cause some families to make more substantial life changes. But the trade-off would be acceptable, because the employment effects are still likely to be tiny relative to the policy’s benefits.

The Post's View: The hidden lesson from Mississippi’s welfare fraud scandal

A robust child tax credit would be an investment in society’s future. Research suggests that topping up family income helps children on a variety of long-term measures, such as educational attainment, lifetime income and health. Surveys indicate that families used their tax credit money on healthier food, tutoring and child activities.

Yet there is one more catch: paying for it. Congress’s one-year enhancement cost some $110 billion. Lawmakers could roll back some of the GOP’s gratuitous 2017 tax cuts, but Republicans would resist. Their alternative is to take money from other important anti-poverty programs. The obvious deal is for Republicans to agree to some tax hikes and Democrats to offer other program cuts that would do minimal harm to the anti-poverty effort.

Congress has a knack for allowing partisanship to derail opportunities to make obvious deals that could make a big difference. This should not be one of them.

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).