By:  Ritchie Torres, Benard P. Dreyer
Source: Data For Progress

Why we must expand the child tax credit

Child poverty is a choice, not an inevitability, in the wealthiest nation in the world.  The United States has the means to eradicate poverty among children.  What has been lacking, for far too long, is the political will--what Dr. King famously called 'the fierce urgency of now.'  The COVID-19 pandemic has created a time of fierce urgency for children, who are spiraling into ever-deepening poverty with no clear end in sight.  

A reform of the Child Tax Credit would lift millions of children out of poverty nationwide.  The Child Tax Credit is effective and essential--effective at reducing poverty and at strengthening families; essential to the front-line workers who bravely put their lives at risk so that the rest of us can safely shelter in place.  We owe it to children, mothers, and essential workers to make the Child Tax Credit work for them.

The present structure of the Child Tax Credit is regressive and inequitable since it leaves behind the poorest third of American children, who are denied the full credit.  Even though the Child Tax Credit is the government's largest expenditure on children, it ironically excludes the children who can least afford to be excluded, an irony that feels especially cruel amid COVID-19.  The burden of exclusion falls most heavily on communities of color and single mothers: about half of African-Americans, half of Latinos, and more than two-thirds of single mothers. Among Congressional Districts, none is more left behind than NY-15 (South Bronx), where 68 percent of the children are deprived of the full benefit.   

The unfairness of the status quo is too glaring to ignore. Members of Congress, who earn six figures, are eligible for the full benefit of the Child Tax Credit. ‎But the members of the armed services who earn base pay are not given the full credit. Nor are millions of essential workers who sustain our country during the pandemic. Nor are millions of mothers who sustain our families.  The children of those whose service we all praise are left to languish in poverty.  It would feel like a cruel joke, were the stakes not so serious.    

The crisis of child poverty strikes close to home.  One of us is the product of a single mother who raised three children while earning minimum wage, which in the 90s was 4.25 an hour.  A single mother like mine working full time for a full year at minimum wage earns too little to receive the full credit.  In an America that promises opportunity for all, a fairer Child Tax Credit would give the poorest families a fighting chance at a decent and dignified life.  

The House Democratic Conference, as evidenced by the HEROES Act, is committed to right-sizing the Child Tax Credit to reflect the magnitude of child poverty in America. By extending the full credit to all but the wealthiest families, enhancing its value, and delivering it monthly, we can provide up to 300 dollars a month per child in ongoing income support to the poor and middle-class families whose lives have been decimated, through no fault of their own, by the worst pandemic in a century.  

The empirical case for the reform of the Child Tax Credit is as strong as the moral argument.  The National Academies of Sciences panel on child poverty, where one of us served, found an enhanced Child Tax Credit to be the single most effective tool for reducing child poverty.  A study by Columbia University found that a fairer Child Tax Credit - of the size proposed by the House in the HEROES Act - would cut the overall child poverty rate by 2/5ths and the black child poverty rate in half.  

Buoyed by broad bipartisan support, the Child Tax Credit in its fairest form would represent a triumph of good morals, good economics, and good politics.  The House of Representatives have done right by the heroes of America in passing a fairer Child Tax Credit, which, according to the best empirical evidence, would result in higher student test scores, higher adult earnings, and higher life expectancy for America's children.  It is time for the Senate and the President to do the same, celebrating our heroes not only with praise but with policy that lifts their families out of poverty.