“No child should have to worry where her next meal will come from or whether she will have a place to sleep each night in the wealthiest nation on earth.”
The words of Marian Wright Edelman, who mentored both of us as advocates for children and families, echo especially strongly today. That’s because those of us who have fought for decades to end child poverty recognize today’s historic opportunity. With the next COVID-19 relief package, we can respond to the harmful impacts of this crisis and, at the same time, make a down payment on an investment in our children and youth that will pay dividends for generations.
Specific provisions of the COVID relief package proposed by President Biden will directly address our nation’s child poverty crisis that’s robbing our children — especially our children of color — of the chance to thrive, with long-term consequences for their development, schooling, health, and economic success.
First and foremost, the relief bill would expand and improve the child tax credit (CTC) to provide families a guaranteed minimum monthly income for the first time. The CTC is meant to offset some of the costs of raising children. But under current policy, families with the lowest incomes or no income at all are left behind. Families earning less than $2,500 don’t get any credit, and a single parent with two children must earn more than $30,000 to receive the full tax credit. In all, one-third of children — including over half of Black and Latino children — don’t receive full CTC benefits because of income requirements.
President Biden’s COVID relief proposal would strengthen the CTC by expanding eligibility for families with low or no income, substantially raising the value of the credit, and disbursing the credit to families each month to better provide for their basic needs.
In total, these changes would nearly triple the poverty-fighting effects of the CTC. They would cut deep child poverty in half, helping 23 million children who currently miss out on the benefit and lifting 4 million children out of poverty entirely.
Improving the CTC is one step toward eliminating the devastating disparities children face because of systemic racism harming their families. With these changes, poverty for Black children would fall by 52 percent, by 45 percent for Hispanic children, and by 61 percent for Indigenous children. But to fully address child poverty, we must go further to remove systemic barriers based on race, language, and immigration status.
2020 was the first year when the majority of U.S. children were children of color. Children of immigrants comprise one quarter of our nation’s children and one-third from families with low incomes. Yet, over 2 million U.S. citizen children haven’t received past COVID stimulus payments because their tax-paying parents lack a Social Security number. We must not make the same mistake again. Congress should include immigrant families in future stimulus payments and expand CTC eligibility to all children regardless of immigration status.
Our nation’s policymakers must also address the needs of young people on the threshold of adulthood. Today, young adults are the next poorest group after children, and those who are parents are the poorest among them. The President’s relief bill would also expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for workers who don’t live with their children, and for those who don’t have children — the only population currently taxed into poverty. And for the first time, it would open the EITC to workers under age 25 without dependent children.
As we round the corner on a year of living in a pandemic, our children continue to suffer. Nearly half of all U.S. children are living in households with difficulty covering usual expenses. A recent survey found that up to 11 million children aren’t getting enough to eat because their households can’t afford enough groceries. Even before COVID, children were the poorest age group in the country, with our children of color bearing the brunt of the crisis.
This pandemic has brought our shameful child poverty problem to a boiling point. But it has also opened a window of opportunity. Right now, we have the chance for bold action to meaningfully address child poverty — we must take it. Congress must swiftly pass a relief bill that improves the CTC, expands the EITC, and includes immigrant families. This would represent a pivotal step in the fight against child poverty and a commitment to our children to fight for their future.
The Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson is the President and CEO of the Children’s Defense Fund. Dr. Olivia Golden is the Executive Director of the Center for Law and Social Policy.