By David Clunie and Samantha Tweedy
The COVID-19 pandemic and unprecedented nationwide protests against racial inequity in 2020 shined a necessary light on the systemic racism embedded in our country’s policies and institutions. The Child Tax Credit is one striking example. From the time it was enacted in 1997 until this year, the Child Tax Credit, which was expressly intended to help struggling families, was not fully available to 50 percent of the Black children in this country (as compared to just 20 percent of white children) because their families’ incomes were too low. This statistic should stop us all in our tracks.
As Congress continues to debate one of the most significant pieces of legislation in our lifetimes — a nearly $2 trillion Build Back Better “reconciliation” bill that would expand childcare, health care, and education funding among so many other overdue structural supports to our economy — we need to push for an extension of the Child Tax Credit beyond 2022 and make it permanent.
This is a critical opportunity to not only create an infrastructure that supports historic, sustainable long-term economic growth but also helps close the racial wealth gap.
For the first time since its enactment, the Child Tax Credit included a temporary increase and refundability provision that made it fully available to families whose incomes are too low to owe any federal income tax and distributed those payments periodically, instead of just once per year during tax season. This change in policy helped prevent millions of families from slipping into poverty during the pandemic and allowed working parents to start building savings to offset future economic downturns.
Congress is now debating whether to make these temporary changes permanent, which researchers from Columbia University estimate would cut the child poverty rate for Black children by more than 50 percent and for all children by 45 percent. This would lift over 4 million children above the poverty line and provide significant long-term benefits for children’s academic progress, health, and future earnings as adults.
We are already seeing significant gains from the temporarily expanded Child Tax Credit. Within just the first month of the initial payment being issued, the number of households with children reporting that they did not have enough to eat dropped by 3.3 million or nearly one-third. By boosting household consumption of goods and services and spurring economic activity in local communities, the impact of the Child Tax Credit has extended far beyond households with children and those experiencing poverty.
It is estimated that over the next 12-months, the Child Tax Credit expansion will boost consumer spending by $27 billion, generating $1.9 billion in revenues from state and local sales taxes, and support over 500,000 full-time median wage jobs.
An issue at the heart of the current debate in Congress — that making the expanded Child Tax Credit permanent could discourage parents from working — is unfounded. More than 400 economists recently signed a letter of support for making expanded availability permanent, explaining, “recent empirical studies suggest that the income provided through the program is unlikely to meaningfully reduce parental labor supply.” In fact, according to a new study by Humanity Forward, 94 percent of Child Tax Credit recipients said they planned to continue working or even pursue overtime opportunities since they would be able to afford child care and other child-rearing expenses. Similarly, the National Academy of Sciences projected that 99.5% of working parents receiving the Child Tax Credit would continue to work.
Beyond a poverty-fighting tool, the expanded Child Tax Credit has the power to set millions of Black families on an upward path toward long-term economic and social mobility. By making it permanently fully refundable at current levels — $3,600 per child for children under five and $3,000 per child for children between six and seventeen — the Child Tax Credit would generate an increase of $76 billion in children’s future earnings in adulthood and nearly $536 billion in increased benefits caused by children’s improved health outcomes. This kind of economic mobility benefits the entire national economy — the estimated $800 billion current and future value of this tax credit to society is roughly eight times the $100 billion initial cost. It is rare that any public policy achieves such a high return on investment.
We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to lift over 4 million children out of poverty and shore up structural damage in the U.S. economy by correcting a provision in our tax code that has systemically prevented Black families from thriving for decades. Congress needs to make the fully refundable expanded Child Tax Credit permanent and continue to distribute those payments periodically. There should be no debate.