Originally published by the Washington Post
The passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan is a defining moment for the United States — it marks the beginning of a future where we protect our children more completely from the vicissitudes of life. How can a piece of legislation offering families support for only one year be a historical shift? Under this new law, for the first time ever, the vast majority of children in families with the lowest incomes will receive access to a minimum income from the federal government. Overnight, the United States will go from one of the stingiest wealthy nations when it comes to supporting the finances of families with children to one of the most generous.
It’s a stunning change from the attitudes that have dominated U.S. politics for a generation — and that led a Democratic president in 1996 (with the support of then-Sen. Joe Biden) to enact one of the most devastating long-term cuts to our system of cash support by establishing the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program and declare it was time to “end welfare as we know it.” That law did, indeed, decimate cash assistance,and it facilitated indefensible racial inequities. It took a quarter-century, but basic cash support has come into the mainstream. This time, it’s here in a far more resilient form, and we believe it will stay.
There is much to cheer in the American Rescue Plan, but the broad expansion of the child tax credit stands out as a massive investment in the health and well-being of America’s families. Most Americans, including children, will be getting a one-time $1,400 stimulus check. But on top of that, most working and middle-class families will receive an expanded child tax credit worth up to $3,600 for each child under the age of 6 and $3,000 for each child ages 6 through 17. Some of that will come in the form of checks from the government paid out over the year, rather than as a refund at tax time next April.
For the first time in the 24-year history of the child tax credit, we will not punish children when their parents have very low incomes. Until now, households in the lowest 9 percent of incomes were completely ineligible, and other households with low incomes could receive only a partial child tax credit, because the credit phased in slowly at 15 cents for each dollar of earnings and was reduced for households with limited federal tax liability. Now, the 27 million children in these households will be eligible for the same help as those with higher-income parents. The payments throughout the course of the year are yet another first.
Driven in significant part by the child tax credit expansion, this legislation is projected to reduce the overall poverty rate from 13.7 percent to 8.7 percent this year and reduce child poverty by half. Nearly 10 million children, including 4.1 million Latino children, 2.5 million White children, 2.3 million Black children, 441,000 Asian children and 344,000 Native children will be above or closer to the poverty line thanks to the child tax credit expansion alone.
These provisions to reduce child poverty effectively mark the beginning of an end to President Bill Clinton’s failed 1996 welfare law. Especially since then, America’s economic security policies fundamentally placed blame on individuals for experiencing joblessness and poverty. That law failed to meet our collective responsibilities to create opportunities for struggling families, including ensuring access to decent jobs and health coverage. Instead, the extraordinary flexibility granted to states made cash support unavailable to millions, while the rigidity of other provisions undermined the pursuit of higher education and imposed rigid and harmful work reporting requirements — all enforced through punitive measures.
One of us (Peter Edelman) resigned from the Clinton administration in protest of that law, predicting that “…it will hurt millions of poor children by the time it is fully implemented.” Indeed, it did. Even before the pandemic hit, more than 6 million people went at least one month without receiving a single dollar of cash income, only payments from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
But the massive and persistent job shortfalls over the past year have forced us to reckon with how we treat those experiencing hard times. The pandemic has pushed policymakers on both sides of the aisle to update their thinking. To access and maintain support through the TANF program today, families often must subject themselves to multiple screenings, transport themselves to multiple denigrating office visits and check-in with case workers throughout the year. Instead of relying primarily on the stigmatized TANF program and forcing participants to endure a demanding and undignified experience, we will now deliver greater cash support through the tax system. Though it’s imperfect, this is a far more respectful system, and it’s one that the vast majority of households already interact with today.
The expanded support for children is also a response to a growing body of evidence that supports income boosts for families when they have low incomes. This legislation means the United States will join 12 other wealthy countries that widely provide child benefits in the form of a subsidy or tax break for families with children: Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Britain. An analysis of Canada’s child allowance showed that kids of families who received the allowance had improved performance in school, as well as tangible improvements in health. If a family’s income grows by $3,000, their children under the age of 5 will see an estimated 19 percent increase in their earnings in adulthood. Though opponents of such programs often claim, falsely, that expanding the social safety net will make people less likely to work, the new policy will not significantly reduce parents’ employment — we expect that it will lead to more employment for the next generation. Indeed, with the estimated cost of child poverty sitting at $800 billion to $1.1 trillion annually, reducing child poverty will have positive macroeconomic effects over the long run.
This idea, and the push for it, isn’t new. But the pandemic deepened the necessity for the policy and widened its support, marking a culmination of decades of effort by child and family organizers, advocates, researchers, and policymakers. In Congress, Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) had advocated for expanding the child tax credit for 18 years, recruiting a bigger group of champions in recent years, such as Reps. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) and Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), and Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.). And of course, Biden’s decision to prioritize this child benefit as he assumed office as president made all the difference.
While the child poverty provisions of the rescue plan are monumental, bigger changes would bring even more far-reaching and lasting results. The new law makes initial strides in reducing poverty and advancing racial equity, but policymakers should make the changes permanent and more comprehensive. Making all immigrant children eligible would ensure that all children in this country have access to an income floor — Donald Trump’s 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act required children to have Social Security numbers to receive the child tax credit, making 1 million children with Individual Tax Identification Numbers ineligible. Making the credit available via periodic payment options that work for families would help protect families that are underbanked from missing out on the benefits from ongoing infusions of cash. The government should partner with civil society to ensure that families that do not currently file taxes will be aware of and can access this crucial benefit.
The tax credit alone will never be sufficient to support families. It offers families with children a minimum income that’s far too low by itself. Investments in paid leave, early-childhood education and care, and equitable public education — also included in the American Rescue Plan — can help parents now while expanding opportunity for children. Our system of unemployment assistance is in dire need of a stronger federal role, too. We also need to ensure there’s a job for everyone who wants one and that work pays by increasing the minimum wage and that work is safe. We continue to face an affordable housing crisis, enduring racial segregation and a long-standing racial wealth gap.
This is a promising start of a new era for America that guarantees economic security for all children — and eventually for all of us, regardless of age. That Biden went from supporting the 1996 law ending basic cash support for millions of children to championing and enacting the most robust cash benefit for children in our nation’s history underscores the transformation our whole country has experienced. It’s now up to policymakers to secure a future without child poverty by making the expanded child tax credit permanent and pushing for other bold economic and social reforms ensuring that every child — rich or poor, Black, White, Latino, or any other race or ethnicity — has a fair chance in our country.