The United States has made some remarkable improvements in students’ educational achievement over the past few decades. High school graduation rates are improving. Disciplinary cases such as expulsions and suspensions are becoming more rare. College attendance rates have risen. And yet, it’s telling that the public policies that have helped deliver these academic gains for the most part have not addressed perhaps the most powerful dynamic impacting educational achievement: the essential economic inequality of American schools and society. To see evidence of this dynamic, one need look no farther than the stark fact that a high-scoring student from a low-income household is slightly less likely to get a college degree than a low-scoring student from a high-income household. It’s the same story today as when the Coleman Report was published: children’s socioeconomic status significantly affects their developmental and academic trajectories.

Thankfully, the U.S. policy community is finally taking child poverty seriously. In March 2021, Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) into law, which enhanced the Child Tax Credit (CTC) program by increasing the maximum that households can claim, from $2,000 for all children under 17 to $3,600 per child age 5 or younger and $3,000 per child ages 6 to 17. For six months of 2021, ARPA’s changes also converted this child tax credit into a monthly payment to families instead of requiring them to wait to receive it when they filed their taxes. Unfortunately, these expanded monthly payments expired on December 31, 2021. Currently, the Build Back Better Act looks to only extend the CTC one more year through December 31, 2022, but due to pushback from Senator Joe Manchin, even this one-year extension will have a hard time being passed through Congress. A more robust CTC is an investment in America’s children that has the potential to dramatically improve their lives—and their academic outcomes. But these improvements won’t likely manifest if the program is not extended or only extended until December 31, 2022.

A permanent expansion of the CTC would reduce the negative impact that poverty has on academic outcomes. According to a recent study by the Urban Institute, extending the expanded CTC until at least 2025 would reduce child poverty to less than 10 percent in most states. By contrast, child poverty rates have routinely been above 14 percent for the past three decades. The implications of sustaining this commitment to American children’s health and well-being are profound. Decreasing child poverty to all-time lows wouldn’t just be good for kids’ health and well-being—it would also significantly improve their academic outcomes. But how exactly would increasing incomes improve academic outcomes? As a former high school teacher at a Title I school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the challenges that students from low-income households face in tackling academic work, and there are three areas where a permanent expansion of the CTC would make an important difference.

1. Parent involvement: a permanently expanded CTC would give parents more time and security to support children in their developmental and academic journey.

Economically disadvantaged parents are more likely to have less time to invest in their children because they are struggling with the challenges that come with higher rates of single parenthood, nonstandard work hours, and less flexible work schedules.1 The amount of time that parents spend with their children can have significant implications for a child’s development and academic outcomes.

Parental engagement is particularly impactful on the early years of children’s lives. For younger children, ages 0–5 are a time of remarkably rapid development, when children’s brains are acquiring critical neural function and structures that serve as the foundation for future cognitive, social, emotional, and health outcomes. Additionally, this early age is when children are most sensitive to environmental influences, both in terms of enrichment and adversity. Unfortunately, the substantial time that parents from low-income backgrounds are often required to spend juggling unpredictable schedules and volatile working conditions simply to make ends meet makes it harder for them to commit time to key developmental activities such as regular reading with children and extended conversations with children. This inability to prioritize child development activities risks establishing a weak foundation for their children’s educational future.

Parental engagement is also important when children are aged 6 to 17, when they are receiving a formal K–12 education. When parents stay reliably involved in a students’ K–12 education, students get better grades and score higher on standardized tests. Additionally, children of involved parents have better attendance records, drop out less often, have higher aspirations, and more positive attitudes toward school and homework. Yet, once again, due to low-income parents’ work-related time restrictions, their school-aged children are less likely to see the positive effects of an involved parent.

Critics who say a permanent expansion of the CTC would lead to irresponsible spending are simply ignoring the evidence. Most parents who qualified under the recent CTC expansion are using the payments for necessities such as food, utilities, and rent or mortgage. By providing low-income families with a regular, dependable, monthly cash benefit—an income floor—a permanent CTC expansion would help parents balance the competing needs of work and family by giving them a financial cushion so that, instead of taking that extra shift or working a second job, they could devote more time to caring for a newborn, attending a PTA meeting, or attending a parent-teacher conference. When we support families, they’re better prepared to support the development of well-rounded, academically prepared children.

2. Out-of-school resources: a permanently expanded CTC would allow parents to provide more out-of-school academic resources for their children.

It’s impossible to ignore the correlation between household income and academic achievement. Students in households with income greater than $200,000 outscore students whose household income is less than $20,000 by almost 300 points on the SAT (1600 scale). Does this mean that placing $180,000 more in the bank account of a low-income family their child’s test score would automatically increase by 300 points? No—but test scores are a proxy that would reflect the benefits of the resources that an additional $180,000 can afford.

Households with higher incomes are more likely to invest in out-of-school resources (such as SAT tutors) for their children; this doesn’t reflect a preference of wealthier people as much as a resource gap for the less wealthy. Indeed, a study out of Washington University in St. Louis confirms that households that had $50,000 or less in income were four times more likely than households that had $100,001 or more to report using the CTC to spend more on tutors for their children (12 percent as compared to 3 percent). Low-income students’ access to out-of-school resources isn’t limited by a lack of interest or demand—it’s limited by affordability.

A permanent CTC would play a dual role in families’ finances, not only allowing them to handle their budget constraints and manage their essential expenses, but also allowing them to provide their children with the resources (tutors, college prep courses, books) that are often unaffordable, but favorable to academic success.

3. School environment: a permanently expanded CTC would lift low-income students out of poverty and reduce the challenging school environments at high-poverty neighborhood schools.

The impacts of poverty are not limited to individual families. They can compound when communities suffer from the effects of concentrated poverty. Residential segregation by socioeconomic status is extremely prevalent in the United States, and growing. Although not all students attend schools based on their parents’ residence, most still do. As a result, high-income students are more likely to attend schools with similarly advantaged peers and low-income students are more likely to attend schools with disadvantaged peers, which can have a reinforcing effect on school environment and thus on student performance.

Stressful conditions from outside school are much more likely to intrude into the classroom in high-poverty schools. Common stressors such as student hunger, unstable housing, caring for family members, and community violence and safety concerns are two to three times more common2 in households where children attend high-poverty schools than households that have children in low-poverty schools. Consequently, these stressors generate high-poverty schools that are more likely to have behavioral issues surface, less instructional time, and low teacher retention—all of which lead to lower academic outcomes for all students.

An extended CTC program could help transform high-poverty schools from the outside-in. As more children are lifted out of poverty, the stressful conditions strongly correlated with poverty are less likely to intrude into the classroom. Schools will see improvements in behavior, instructional time, teacher retention, and academic outcomes. In other words, one of the most effective ways to reform and improve schools with high concentrations of poverty is simple: reduce the poverty rates to levels where they are no longer high-poverty schools.

Looking Ahead

A permanent expansion of the CTC has the opportunity to provide low-income children across the United States with the resources necessary to improve their academic outcomes. It is time that we stop looking at the CTC solely as an emergency survival fund or a “handout” for low-income families, and seriously factor it as an investment in U.S children’s education. If the CTC is made permanent, this would be the equivalent of investing a minimum of $57,6003 into each child in the United States, from birth to high school graduation. The implications of an investment of this magnitude would be profound. All children in this nation deserve the opportunity to attain an excellent education. A permanently expanded CTC has the unique opportunity to bring that ideal closer to reality.


  1. Marc H. Bornstein, Handbook of Parenting, vol. 4 (New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2019), 317.
  2. Robert Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015), 171–72.
  3. The amount of $57,600 was calculated for the eighteen years of childhood with the formula ($3,600 x 6) + ($3,000 x 12).