American Families Wonder if They Can Count on the Child Tax Credit in 2022
Over 9,000 emails from low-income families across the country have hit the inboxes of lawmakers recently. They’re writing about the difference the Child Tax Credit has made to their families and advocating for the program to be extended. Two themes emerged in these parents’ stories-—the Child Tax Credit has made an enormous positive impact on their children and they want to know if they can continue to count on it. Leticia Burgest is one such parent.
Leticia is a single mother of three living in Douglasville, Ga. She has two daughters, a 3rd grader and a sophomore in high school, and a 20-year old-son who is earning his IT certificate at community college. She started a job this past June, working for a call center, after being unemployed for nearly a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Leticia was relieved to be working again but she lost her SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or “food stamps”) and her rent went up as a result. (Leticia lives in public housing, which is fixed to her income.) With these two changes, she calculates she lost about $900 per month.
Thankfully, in July she began receiving $500 a month for her two youngest children as a part of the expanded Child Tax Credit. The American Rescue Plan Act increased the total amount of this credit, extended it to most children—even those whose parents have no earned income—and perhaps most importantly, paid out half the credit in monthly payments starting this past July.
“You have no idea how it has helped my household. I actually do look forward to it [the Child Tax Credit payment] every month, it helps so much. It helps me stay afloat with bills, with groceries. I don’t know what I would have done without it. Sometimes payroll is not enough to cover everything in the household, especially when you have school-aged children,” says Leticia.
Unlike the other benefits Leticia has received—like SNAP and public housing—the Child Tax Credit does not fluctuate with the changes in her life, like starting a new job. Below a certain income threshold, all families get the same amount per child ($300 a month for children under 6 and $250 for those 6-17). The Child Tax Credit payments have been vaunted for being delivered as cash that parents can put to use in any way they need, instead of in-kind assistance like SNAP. But its reliability—the fact that families can count on it like hardly anything else—is just as rare in assistance.
Behavioral economists have made clear that the conditions of poverty reduce cognitive capacity—having to make ends meet with insufficient resources impedes decision making. Managing government benefits that are conditioned on income or employment only adds to this mental load. So, a regular, predictable payment that families with children can count on doesn’t just reduce poverty by injecting flexible cash into their budgets; it also does so by freeing up mental space to focus on things like parenting.
Leticia has noticed a change beyond just her monthly budget though—the Child Tax Credit payments have allowed her to buy her youngest daughter a couple more pairs of shoes and to get both her daughters’ hair braided regularly. It might sound small, but she sees a confidence in them: “You can tell how they be holding their head. It’s something different.” On the weekends, her home is where her daughters’ friends gather. “I end up not sticking to my budget because they want this, they want that.” With the Child Tax Credit monthly payments, Leticia’s no longer choosing between staying on top of bills and the things that bring her daughter’s confidence and joy. She gets to do both.
However, the Child Tax Credit advance payments are coming to end soon. Leticia and millions of others like her received their final payment this week, unless Congress extends the expansion. Talks continued this week between the White House and Senate about the fate of the $2.2 trillion “Build Back Better” legislation that includes a Child Tax Credit extension, but West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin (D) cast doubt on the prospect of a vote before the end of the year.
Back in October, Leticia was planning to save the November and December payments in order to send her youngest daughter to cheerleading camp. When we spoke last week, Leticia was in a very different place. She had just received notice that her job would be ending in a couple of months. “I wish this could be an ongoing thing,” she said of the Child Tax Credit. “I just feel disappointed that extra money is about to be taken. You really can’t count on anything.”
Julieta Cuéllar is a researcher at Propel, makers of the Providers app, which is used by over 5 million families across the United States, including Leticia. The Providers app allows users to check and manage the balance of government benefits delivered on an EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) card as well as offering a free debit card where users can manage benefits delivered in cash as well as any other income. Propel has partnered with Stand for Children to help over 3,000 users email their members of Congress about the Child Tax Credit.