Starting in July, Rebecca Wood’s tight family budget was buoyed by a federal payment that landed in her bank account on the 15th of each month — no strings attached.
It was $250 for her and her daughter Charlie, a wispy-haired 9-year-old who loves pink, princesses, and the early aughts Boston band Dispatch. “Such a girly girl,” Wood said.
The money went toward whatever seemed most urgent: Electric bills. Groceries. Debt payments. A refill on an asthma inhaler. A warm coat.
“There was something always hanging over my head,” Wood said. “It’s about putting out the fire that’s closest to you.”
But on the 15th of January, no money came for Wood or 35 million other families nationwide. A broad, brief experiment in federal aid for children — expanding the Child Tax Credit to as much as $300 for each kid under 5, $250 for those between 5 and 17 — came to an abrupt end. And efforts to extend it died when President Biden’s Build Back Better Act fizzled in the Senate.
Created as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan relief bill, the funds were once touted as a tool for upward mobility. “This would be the largest ever one-year decrease in child poverty in the history of the United States of America,” Biden said in July.
And it was.
For the first time, the credit reached low- and no-income families who were previously ineligible because they did not earn enough to owe income taxes, said Alison Bovell-Ammon of Children’s HealthWatch, a Boston-based public health network that tracks the impact of legislation.
Around 1 million children in Massachusetts benefited from the payments, and 160,000 kids were brought closer or above the poverty line. Food insecurity among households with children fell by 26 percent, according to a recent study.
The credit illustrated something the government should have already known, Bovell-Ammon said.
“Reducing child poverty is good policy,” she added. “Investing in our children is critical to the well-being of our workforce and the generations to come.”
It’s now caught up in a political scuffle, even as COVID cases surged rapidly, classrooms and day cares find themselves short-staffed, and inflation soars.
And so for millions of families like the Woods, that means that their little relief from the messy tangle of everyday expenses is gone.
When Charlie was born in 2012 in Northern Virginia, she was a micro-preemie: 790 grams, or less than 2 pounds. At 10 days old, she measured the length of her mother’s finger. Her body was so small that doctors used a stringy piece of gauze as her diaper.
She grew into a “typical kid,” Wood said, one who adores makeup, singing, and horses. But even in third grade, she requires expensive medical care: occupational and speech therapy, equipment for cerebral palsy, and specialists in rehabilitative medicine, neurology, and orthopedics.
“She came early, and it changed everything,” Wood said. It “financially crushed” her and her ex-husband.
In the early years, Wood prioritized Charlie’s health care at the cost of her own. A delayed root canal got infected, damaging her teeth and part of her jaw. In 2018, Wood developed lupus, an inflammatory disease where the body attacks its own tissues.
The unending medical bills took a toll on Wood’s income. Before the pandemic, she worked for Mass-Care, a health care advocacy group in Boston. Between the $2,400 monthly rent on her old Revere apartment, student loans, medical debt, and school lunch for Charlie, her modest salary was stretched thin.
Then COVID hit. Wood was furloughed by Mass-Care and unable to take another in-person job because she lacked childcare.
“I would’ve done anything,” Wood said. “I would’ve checked out groceries, even though it was high risk. But I couldn’t. I had a kid at home.”
They fell back on government programs, including EBT and expanded pandemic unemployment. A nonprofit in Revere provided her fresh meals. Last summer, Wood moved in with her partner in Acton, a change that halved her housing costs. Today, her income comes from freelance writing and research.
When the child tax credit started in July, it felt like a boost. An extra $100 for rent. Another meal for Charlie. A copay for Wood’s hematology appointments.
“I would argue that it came too late,” she said. “But it helped me tremendously until now — now that we don’t get it anymore.”
As its year-end expiration date drew near, a host of politicians voiced support for extending the credit. Senator Ed Markey is a champion of the movement, often repeating a rallying call with advocates: “Being a parent is work.”
“We’re seeing the real-time, real-life impacts of this program on every single community,” he said during a November press conference.
Families largely used the credit to pay for debt, food, mortgages, and rent, a Census Bureau study found in October. When classes began in September, the money flowed to school-related expenses. For children under 5, a significant portion funneled to childcare.
But critics, including key Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, worry the program will deter parents from working and point to its costly price tag, especially since — as initially structured anyway — the vast majority of US families qualify for the money.
Polls have found that voters are split over prolonging the measure, too. Keeping the credit for another year has the backing of 47 percent of people but is opposed by 42 percent, according to Politico and Morning Consult.
During a Wednesday press conference, Biden announced plans to split up Build Back Better to salvage more of its climate legislation. Paring down the child tax credit and paid family leave measures could make the bill appealing to more members of Congress.
“I think we can break the package up, get as much as we can now and come back and fight for the rest of it,” Biden said.
Wood knows there are families less fortunate than hers: those who live paycheck to paycheck, who survive on minimum wage.
They needed the program desperately, she said.
She and Charlie could use it, too. Wood wants to go to law school one day. It would be best to have a handle on her debt, which mounts with each new medical expense.
Her free time is spent advocating for universal health care, free school lunch, and student debt forgiveness. This fall, Wood sat in a kayak outside Manchin’s houseboat with a sign that read “Don’t sink our health care.”
Day to day, her job is “about survival,” Wood said. The credit allowed for more than that.
Just weeks after it landed in her bank account for the last time, Wood contracted COVID. She is fully vaccinated and boosted, but high-risk with four co-morbidities. The virus flared up her asthma and prompted her to schedule multiple virtual appointments with her doctor.
“I’ve been able to quarantine, my MD is vigilant about my care, and I can manage my time off,” she tweeted.
I tested positive for COVID on Monday. As far as things go, I've been lucky so far. I've been able to quarantine, my MD has been vigilant about my care, and I can manage the time off.— Rebecca Wood (@woodra) January 13, 2022
However, I can't stop thinking about how... https://t.co/HI6MT1TZfV
But Wood can’t help but think what the $250 could’ve done for her now — or the throngs of families in a similar position.
“Could’ve used it this month,” she texted a Globe reporter. “For tests, masks, and now, my medications and doctor visits co-pays.”
The other expenses will just have to wait.
Diti Kohli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Follow her on Twitter @ditikohli_.