More than 1 in 10 American children live in poverty.
Many are anxious about their next meal. They fret about eviction. And too many are stressed by the threat of neighborhood violence.
The pandemic has only deepened the disadvantage.
A rolling census survey, designed to take the pulse of family life during the pandemic, shows that about one-third of low-income families with children in public and private schools consistently report their kids spent “much less time” on learning activities in the previous week than they did before the coronavirus struck.
Now, Congress has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a material difference in the lives of our most vulnerable kids. And it must act.
President Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package is best known for the $1,400 direct payments it would send to low-income and middle-class Americans and its call for an extension of unemployment benefits.
But the proposal also includes a one-year expansion of the child tax credit that, if made permanent, could make a profound difference in the lives of the country’s most vulnerable kids.
The measure, put forth by Representative Richard Neal, the Springfield Democrat who chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, would increase the credit families get per child from the current $2,000 to $3,000 for children under age 6 and to $3,600 for children ages 6 to 17.
And, just as important, it would expand access to the poorest families in the country. At present, the tax credit isn’t available to a family making under $2,500 — say, a single mom who lost her job and is living with a sibling. Nor does it fully phase in until a family’s income reaches nearly $12,000.
The result, according to Columbia University researchers, is that more than one-third of American children don’t get the full benefit of the tax credit — including half of Black and Latino children and a stunning 70 percent of kids with single mothers.
“It does not reach the children and families who would benefit from it the most,” says Sophie Collyer, research director at Columbia’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy.
The center estimates that the Neal expansion and other measures in the relief package would cut childhood poverty in half. And research shows that giving low-income families cash has extensive knock-on effects for their kids, including better learning outcomes, fewer psychological problems, and higher earnings as adults.
But expanding the child tax credit would not just be a boon to the poorest American families. It would also help millions of middle-class families struggling to make ends meet; the tax credit only starts to phase out for heads of household when they earn $112,500 and married couples when they make $150,000.
One key feature: The Internal Revenue Service would pay out the benefit in advance of tax season, with the legislation calling for monthly payments beginning in July — $250 per month for older children and $300 per month for younger kids.
That steady stream of cash would be especially helpful to families facing job loss or other fluctuations in income.
But Congress cannot lift millions of children out of poverty only to let them fall a year later. It must work to make the child tax credit expansion permanent.
Wealthy countries in Europe and elsewhere have long provided cash allowances to families raising kids. And if America, which has one of the highest childhood poverty rates in the developed world, wants to improve its dismal standing, it will have to do the same.
Senate budget rules require Democrats to find a way to pay for the expansion if they’re going to cement it into law. And the best way to do that is to raise taxes on the corporations and wealthy individuals who got big cuts during the Trump years.
Senator Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, is floating a different idea: offsetting the cost with cuts to programs for the poor.
That should be a nonstarter in a Democratic-controlled Washington with a rare opportunity to take meaningful steps toward addressing the economic inequality that has warped American capitalism over the last half-century.
But the Romney proposal does include some interesting ideas for administering the benefit that Democrats should consider. He would have the Social Security Administration rather than the IRS make the payments, for instance — turning to an agency with a long track record of issuing monthly checks. As appealing as that approach may be, it comes with its own bureaucratic challenges: The Social Security Administration would have to coordinate with the IRS to make the system work. In the end, lawmakers will need to land on a policy with the smoothest delivery for poor and middle-class families.
Some other tweaks to the Neal proposal may be in order, too — like strengthening a “safe harbor” provision that protects parents from clawbacks if the government sends them too much in advanced monthly payments; an unexpected bill at the end of the year can be a real hardship for some families.
That’s all detail work, though. The larger task for Congress is to face up to one of the country’s great moral failings — letting more than 9 million children languish in poverty — and to take meaningful action to remedy it now.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.