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Fewer groceries, more debt: Families brace for first month without child tax payments

Melissa Roberts fixes dinner for her kids. Roberts left her job at an insurance company at the start of the pandemic and has struggled to find employment since.Andrea Morales/For The Washington Post

The check would’ve arrived right around now, helping tide Melissa Roberts over until the end of the month. At $550, her monthly child tax payment wasn’t extravagant, she says, but enough to cover groceries and utilities.

Roberts, who lives in Marks, Miss., left her job as an insurance agent at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic when her employer wouldn't let her work from home. She's applied for dozens of administrative and customer service positions since then but has yet to be hired.

"This tax credit is the only way we've kept food on the table," said Roberts, who is raising a 5- and 7-year-old. "For a lot of the working poor, it gave us a chance to finally take a freaking breath and not stress so much about how the bills get paid every month."


The extended benefit, part of the Biden administration's American Rescue Plan passed last year, distributed as much as $300 per child every month to millions of American families starting in July. The extra pay lasted only six months before it lapsed in late December.

A number of critics have said the expanded credit was too broad and not focused enough on families in need, paying out benefits to households that earned $400,000 each year. But proponents say it had an immediate and positive impact: slashing child poverty rates by about 30% each month and reducing food hardship for low-income households with children by about 25%, according to researchers at Columbia University.

For now, the future of the monthly payments remains in limbo, raising concerns among some economists that recent gains in food security and household stability will be quickly reversed, particularly as a resurgence of coronavirus cases casts a pall over the economic recovery.

"It's safe to say that with this program gone, child poverty will certainly increase," said Zachary Parolin, a researcher at Columbia University's Center on Poverty & Social Policy. "Parents were using this monthly payment right away - to buy food, cover rent and pay off debt - so when Jan. 15 rolls around and that $300 check isn't there, a lot of families are going to be in more difficult economic conditions."


Last year's expansion of the child tax credit not only increased the amount of payments - from $2,000 a year to as much as $3,600 per child - but also started disbursing the money in monthly installments instead of a lump sum during tax season.

For many households that received monthly checks, the money had become a source of additional income on which they had grown to rely. Census Bureau data shows that families disproportionately spent the benefit on necessities like food, rent, utilities and child care. In interviews with more than a dozen parents, almost all said they were already feeling the strain of having less disposable cash, particularly as persistent inflation continues to raise the prices of many basics. Some reported cutting back on fresh fruits and vegetables or relying more heavily on local food banks. Other said they're dipping into savings or leaving some bills unpaid.

"Families are facing extra financial pressure just as an omicron surge leads to more illnesses, school cancellations and lost income from work," said Alix Gould-Werth, director of family economic security policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a left-leaning think tank. "I'm worried about the immediate implications for families, as well as the ways this will ripple out onto the economy by dampening spending."


Critics of the measure say making it permanent would give parents a reason to stop working or pull back from the labor force in other ways. Many, including Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., say they would like the extended credit to be tied to a work requirement.

"The short-term impacts of the expansion are good and clear - poverty did decline as a result of people receiving these monthly checks," said Scott Winship, director of poverty studies at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. "But long term, if people realized they could count on their incomes remaining higher in perpetuity, I do think we'd see fewer parents choosing to work."

Back in Mississippi, Roberts - who took custody of her cousin's grandchildren five years ago - says she'll probably let her car insurance payments lapse so she can buy groceries. She has just $388 left in her bank account but feels lucky to own her house, which she says puts her in a much better position than many friends who are at risk of eviction or foreclosure.

"When you live paycheck to paycheck, you get so beat down having to watch every penny - and God forbid your car breaks down or you need a plumber," the 49-year-old said. "For a few months, we had the wiggle room to breathe."

In San Antonio, Nathaniel Miller and his wife used their monthly payments to buy gluten-free food, oat milk and diapers for their 1-year-old daughter, who has severe food allergies. Without it, he says his family of four will have to start using their savings to cover everyday expenses.


"We're a one-income household, so that money has been a lifeline," said Miller, 34, who works in communications. "Now that it's gone, I don't know where that extra money is going to come from. We have a little bit in savings, but savings deplete quickly. If anything else comes up, we're kind of screwed."

Bruce Meyer, a professor at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy, said policymakers have long favored antipoverty spending targeted toward specific problems, such as disability payments for those who cannot work, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) for families that need help buying groceries, and public housing programs for the homeless. The enhanced child tax credit, he said, marked a departure by giving families money without strings attached.

"To send cash to every family with kids - regardless of need, regardless of whether they're able to work - was a completely new thing," he said. "The long-term consequences are that you encourage dependence on the government and keep people from figuring out how to support themselves."

Research from the Niskanen Center, a moderate think tank, found that the extension of the credit would boost consumer spending by $27 billion a year and create approximately 500,000 full-time jobs. The benefit has also been shown to improve household stability, reduce alcohol and tobacco consumption and provide additional tax revenue to local economies, said Samuel Hammond, the center's director of poverty and welfare policy.


"If the extension to the child tax credit were made permanent, it would be one of the most impactful anti-poverty measures of this generation," he said. "The stakes of the monthly payments are so high: They provide household stability and the ability for families to plan and budget, and all of that is totally undermined if next month's payment is caught up in political intrigue."

Lawmakers remain deadlocked over the future of the child tax credit, which emerged as a key sticking point in the Build Back Better bill. Congressional Democrats have widely said they don't want to yield to Manchin's demands for a work requirement.

"I can't think of another program that's had such an impact so quickly," said Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash. "We're at risk of losing this progress by not extending the credit."

Even families squarely in the middle class say they have benefited from the additional money - and put it back in the economy. Caroline Nasella, a government attorney in Sacramento with 3- and 6-year-old daughters, said the extra $400 a month helped cover child-care costs and provided extra breathing room during the pandemic.

"It hasn't been a make-or-break policy for us, personally, but it was certainly a cushion," the 38-year-old said. "When you're paying $1,200 a month for child care, of course any extra money helps."

Kelly McKernan, an artist and illustrator in Nashville, used her $250 monthly checks to cover mid-month bills and buy school clothes and winter boots for her second-grader. Her income has been cut in nearly half, to about $25,000, during the pandemic.

“Not having that money is already having a really big impact,” said McKernan, 35, who’s working on a graphic novel anthology with the rock band Evanescence and is looking for art teaching positions to make ends meet. “I’m on the precipice of not being able to make it anymore.”