Congress’s passage of a reconciliation bill this week marks a tremendous missed opportunity to support families with children and continue one of the most effective programs of the pandemic: the expanded Child Tax Credit (CTC).
Last year, U.S. families experienced what it was like to live in a society that actively demonstrates its commitment to supporting families with children. The expanded CTC, made available for six months by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), provided $250- $300 per child every month to families. The impact was immediate: dramatically reducing food insufficiency and child poverty, while promoting economic security and well-being.
The CTC also accomplished something profound. As Michael, a father in Michigan told us, the CTC made families in his community “feel like, ‘Okay, now we’re getting a part of what it means to be an American.’”
Accustomed to their children being denied opportunities, from underfunded schools to limited enrichment activities, the expanded CTC made families, “feel like they’re part of the American system… it was extra money in their account for whatever they might need, for resources that was denied because they just couldn’t afford it,” Michael explained.
From last fall through this spring, including after the monthly payments ended, we interviewed 45 parents and caregivers of color like Michael from across the United States. We spoke primarily to Black and Latinx parents because before ARPA’s temporary changes, they had been disproportionately excluded from the CTC due to income thresholds that punish those with the lowest incomes, and because of how racism has shaped policies to lead to caregivers of color being historically underserved by cash benefits.
Our interviews illustrated how the CTC changed families’ everyday lives, as well as how it made them feel—about themselves, their communities, and their country. These conversations made it clear that the very structure of the expanded CTC as a relatively easy to access, nearly universal benefit—akin to Social Security but for families with children—conferred a sense of dignity, respect, and inclusion.
The families we spoke to, like the families captured in numerous national surveys over the last year, used their CTC checks to pay bills and invest in their children—buying groceries, signing their children up for extracurriculars, paying for utilities, and so much more.
By creating room in families’ budgets, the payments helped reduce stress among parents and caregivers. Cory, a father of two in Mississippi who works three jobs to support his family as his wife finishes her undergraduate degree, is all too familiar with the stress that comes with struggling to pay the bills. He told us that his four-year-old daughter is the “first person” to notice “if daddy’s got pressure on him,” and often “pray[s] to God about provisions for groceries and school.” Cory explained that the expanded CTC “help[s] ease the pressure on me and my wife.”
The unrestricted cash benefit allowed families a degree of self-determination— empowering them to make decisions about how to spend the money to meet their family’s changing needs. Amara, who lives with her husband and three children in North Carolina, appreciated how she could use it to pay for child care one month and gas the next. “Not having a restriction and being able to gauge what our family needed that month without worries was super beneficial,” she explained.
And it helped families meet their evolving needs without being asked invasive questions or being required to meet with caseworkers, complete paperwork, or jump through hoops like so many other means-tested benefits.
Cindy, a mother of three in Mississippi who had difficulty accessing supports in the past, noted how she received the CTC automatically: “We didn’t have to do anything. It just was deposited to my bank account. So that was awesome.”
The result was that the CTC strengthened families and entire communities during its six-month expansion. Rachelle, a mother of a five-year-old in North Carolina who works in early education, explained, “You could see [the effect of the CTC] in the parents and the children, the confidence and actually not feel[ing] ashamed.” She continued, “We were getting along easier, we were happier to talk and greet each other in the hall.”
By offering flexible and meaningful support to families, the expanded CTC showed families that they were valued, and gave parents the opportunity to imagine a more secure future. But as Congress has failed to extend this vital program, families are once again left on their own. Congress has a moral obligation to swiftly reinstate the expanded CTC so that all children and families can experience “what it means to be an American.”
Elisa Minoff is a senior policy analyst at the Center for the Study of Social Policy and Ellie Kaverman is a policy analyst at the Center for the Study of Social Policy.
Read More: Failure to extend Child Tax Credit in reconciliation leaves millions of families on their own