A couple of years ago, the idea that the United States would adopt an unconditional cash allowance to support children and families was out of the question—but that is exactly what the American Rescue Plan has now accomplished by expanding the Child Tax Credit (CTC). The more robust Child Tax Credit will now include higher benefit amounts of $3,600 a year for children under age 6 and $3,000 for older children; make the credit fully refundable so that low-income and even no-income families can fully benefit; and direct the benefits to be delivered to families throughout the year as a regular support.
The new CTC in the American Rescue Plan by itself will cut poverty and deep poverty for all children under age 18 by nearly 50 percent, with a particularly large impact for children of color. These new expansions are a revolutionary support for children and families today.
The stunning extent of child poverty in America, with the highest rates among large wealthy nations, was a leading and serious indicator of an economy and social net that were clearly not working. Since 2016, TCF’s Rediscovering Government Initiative (RGI)—with the unqualified support of industrialist and philanthropist Bernard L. Schwartz—has dedicated itself to making the extensive and grave consequences of child poverty far better known and to put forth solutions to cut child poverty in America.
Washington, D.C. policymakers didn’t take adequate notice for years. In time, thankfully, there has been a very committed group of policymakers—led by by Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), with strong support from Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO), and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ)—who have recognized the gravity of this tragedy and have worked toward a solution.
Academic research increasingly showed how damaging poverty was to children, including neurological and organ damage that can last a lifetime. But for many years, an unconditional allowance without work requirements could not win support in America, where concerns that the poor would squander money or shirk work abounded—a view that was held even among many academics.
But new academic research built the case over two decades that raising kids above the poverty line had measurable and significant cognitive, emotional, and medical benefits. RGI’s own collaboration with the Columbia School of Social Work, for example, showed how efficient a direct cash disbursement could be in raising kids out of official poverty. Moreover, there was significant evidence that the cash allowances would not disincentivize parents from working.
In time, many academics and policymakers joined what became a growing chorus. During the debate about the 2017 tax bill, RGI joined with First Focus to press for an expanded child tax credit, and also with the conservative Niskanen Center in an important effort that ended up with an increase in the credit and broader political support. In 2019, The National Academy of Sciences presented to Congress their conclusion that a consensus among key academics was that a cash allowance was the best way to cut poverty. And now, after years of tireless advocacy—and the need for action made clear by a brutal pandemic-induced recession that placed more children into poverty—the American Rescue Plan has expanded the Child Tax Credit into a genuine child allowance, with full refundability, coverage for almost all children, higher benefit amounts, and regular delivery of the benefits.
This expansion will undoubtedly serve as a milestone in how we support our children and families. But there is much to be done. Most important, the legislation is for only one year. Other technical matters to iron out are how most effectively to make the payments recurring, including the possibility that the administration of the plan should fall to the Social Security Administration, rather than the IRS. We will now be covering these matters, but the main story of this week is a new commitment to assisting children and cutting child poverty. With the benefit now in place, it is a fight that we must continue to make.