Game Changer: Aid to Families

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Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

In July, the federal money started rolling in — up to $300 checks or bank deposits per month for each child under six and $250 for children 6-17. This is a big deal, as estimates are that the Child Tax Credit (CTC) expansion, passed as part of the American Rescue Plan in March, will lift 50 percent of America’s children out of poverty, assuming the program is made permanent.

Response to the plan ranges from sour Republican complaints over program costs (maybe $105 billion per year to subsidize poor and middle-income families), to jubilation from those who have hailed it as “a game changer.” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has called expanded child tax credits “an economic victory for America and a moral one.” The program has been extolled by Sen. Cory Booker  as the “most aggressive federal intervention to help families since the New Deal.” 

Yet, when the American Rescue Plan was first unveiled, the CTC provision was not included. The program became part of the bill thanks to two veteran lawmakers: Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn) and Washington state’s own Sen. Patty Murray. They had been working on increased child tax credits for a decade. When it looked as if their plan was doomed, the two used their legislative muscle to wrangle supporters and to lobby the White House. They made it happen.

President Biden later singled out DeLauro and Murray for their refusal to take no for an answer. The women’s determination may owe something to their experiences growing up. As a child, DeLauro, 78, daughter of Italian immigrants, arrived home from school to see her family’s furniture piled on the street. They had been evicted. Murray, 72, also knows first-hand about tough times. Her family — she and her six siblings — were forced to depend on food stamps when serious illness kept her father from working.

In addition to co-sponsors DeLauro and Murray, the Child Tax Credit provision benefitted from backing from other lawmakers, including Sen. Cory Booker, Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-New York), and Washington 1st District’s Rep. Suzan DelBene. In Washington alone, it’s estimated tax credits could provide help for 60,000 children, with checks averaging $423 per family each month. Among local backers are Poverty Action, Mom’s Rising, Northwest Harvest, and El Centro de la Raza.

Payments throughout this year and expanded credits in 2022 are income-based and begin phasing out for individuals earning more than $75,000 a year or for married couples with more than $150,000 income. Benefits taper $50 per month for every $1,000 a family makes over the threshold. Locally there are programs underway that offer sign-up help for those who don’t ordinarily file a tax return. Vice President Kamala Harris, recognizing that some families may be missed, has said, “Whenever you run into people — perfect strangers even — just go up and tell them about the Child Tax Credit.” 

But besides the need to find and register missing families, there is another major downside problem to the CTC program. It is only temporary, approved for a single year. Democratic leaders in the House — Reps. DeLauro, DelBene, and Torres foremost among them — have pledged to extend the program. They’re aiming to make CTC permanent rather than merely prolonging benefits for four or five years.

Passing permanent CTC as part of the American Families Act has the support of a majority of congressional Democrats. Politically, it helps that benefits once extended are difficult to wipe out (think Obamacare). But passage won’t be easy given those razor-thin Democratic margins in both House and Senate. Nevertheless, it matters that heavy-weight politicians like DeLauro, Murray, and others are solidly behind the plan to lift children out of poverty. Susan DelBene  vows:  “I won’t give up until this is permanent.” 

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Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and later for the Seattle Times. In 2003, she quit to run for Seattle City Council where she served 12 years. She now writes for Westside Seattle and has been a co-host on The Bridge, aired on community radio station KMGP. You can email tips and comments to Jean at jgodden@blarg.net.

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