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A massive real-world experiment is taking place right now for families with children

A massive real-world experiment is taking place right now for families with children

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(Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
(Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

In mid-July, many American parents opened up their bank accounts and saw a welcome sight: an extra few hundred dollars.

Reporters and researchers have since been grappling with the impacts of these payments, a child allowance of sorts that brings the United States in line with many other Western countries that give low- and middle-income families monthly stipends to help with parenting expenses.

Tucked into the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed in March was a provision that expanded the child tax credit up to $3,600 a year per child — paid out on a monthly basis — and made it fully refundable, so families get the benefit even if it’s more than they pay in taxes. In August, the federal government sent payments to the parents or caregivers of roughly 61 million children, the Internal Revenue Service reported.

As Annie Lowrey wrote in The Atlantic, “Ask poverty researchers or child advocates about the new child tax credit, and their response is likely to be rapturous: ‘Historic.’ ‘A game changer.’ ‘The single most important policy in 50 years.’ ‘Unprecedented.’”

Elisa Minoff, a policy analyst for the Center for the Study of Social Policy, told me earlier this year that the expanded credit (then just a proposal) represented a “massive” increase in investment for children. I called her recently to see how she thinks the payments have been working now that they’re enshrined in law (at least for the remainder of this year).

“It's a really huge moment for a country that has underinvested in families with children for decades,” Minoff told me. “The challenge moving forward is really to make sure that all families who are eligible get it.”

Families qualify for the full amount if they make $75,000 or less for a single tax filer, $112,500 or less for a “head of household” filer, or $150,000 or less for married couples who file taxes jointly. The credit phases out at higher incomes.

But about 4 million or more eligible children aren’t receiving the automatic payments, according to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Those include roughly 1.6 million babies expected to be born this year on Medicaid. As of late August, there isn’t yet a mechanism for new parents to sign up for the monthly sum.

Minoff also noted that an estimated 1 million kids are ineligible because of their immigration status, as are another several hundred thousand children who don’t live more than half the time with someone the IRS considers legal kin (such as parents, stepparents, foster parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts or uncles).

Despite the obstacles, it’s already helping struggling families, Minoff said.

“You hear a lot of parents talk about how this has reduced stress and anxiety, and allows them to not just pay the bills but do some fun things with their kids, like take them to the zoo or go out to eat, when they hadn’t been able to do that in the past,” she said.

A growing body of research has shown the enduring effects of childhood poverty. As Jason DeParle reported in The New York Times: “A landmark study in 2019 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine showed that even short stints in poverty could cause lasting harm, leaving children with less education, lower adult earnings and worse adult health. Though welfare critics said aid caused harm, the panel found that ‘poverty itself causes negative child outcomes’ and that income subsidies ‘have been shown to improve child well-being.’” 

DeParle quoted a mother who said she had such bad depression after running out of money last fall that she had a panic attack while driving. “My son was freaking out” looking for her asthma inhaler, she told DeParle.

The first child tax credit stipends, in July, lifted 3 million kids out of poverty, a Columbia University study found. Families with children also reported a modest decrease in food insufficiency and trouble paying bills following the payments, the U.S. Census Bureau said.

Another benefit of the child allowance could be its potential to reduce the chances a family becomes involved in the child welfare system. In 2019, as part of a Center for Health Journalism Data Fellowship, I reported on the high number of child neglect cases in Indiana, and how many of them were tied to families’ socioeconomic statuses.

In my reporting, I found that, in general, the more child poverty a given county had the more likely families there would be investigated for child neglect. Indiana, at the time, had financial distress included in its definition of child neglect.

“A lot of the child maltreatment reporting is actually for issues secondary to poverty,” Dana Weiner, a senior policy fellow with Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, told me recently. “So if we reduce poverty and families are better able to keep the heat on and keep their kids adequately clothed and fed, that will alleviate some of those reports that are for neglect technically, but are actually secondary to poverty.”

Weiner and some colleagues recently put out a brief compiling the research to date on how providing economic support to families keeps them out of the child welfare system. For instance, a 10% boost in refundable state earned income tax credits was associated with a nearly identical decline in rates of child neglect reports, according to research cited in the project.

As I reported on this site in 2019, increases to the minimum wage and child support payments also both reduced reports of child neglect.

That stands to reason the expanded child tax credit could have a comparable effect on the number of families involved with child protective services.

“What do I think will happen?” Weiner said. “I mean, my hypothesis would be that there would be a big impact.”

Journalists have already started documenting the real-time results of the child tax credit experiment. One father told Sarah Jones of New York magazine that he planned to use the first three months’ worth of payments to cover roughly $1,500 in outstanding medical bills from his oldest son’s seizure earlier this year.

Another mother said she would put the tax credits toward credit card debt she accumulated to pay for therapy for her son, who has autism. “I feel like there’s very few good news stories, and this is one,” she told Jones.

There are similar stories playing out in nearly every community across the country right now, and journalists would do well to tell them as Congress debates whether to make the monthly payments permanent.


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What confuses me is who will have to pay it back. If i am the payee for my child receives, ssdi survivors child benefits, I was an ssi(disability) recepient, who is fully disabled. Yet my payments were stopped because ssa claims I was "overpaid". I filed the nonfilers form for 2019/20.
Isn't their some restrictions about who will have to pay this "credit", back?
The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, was done along the same unclear lines. At least interagency wise.
To the public, it was clearly defined as Assistance for anyone who was not working then or prior to the SIP, was not able to work, was not eligible for regular unemployment, had used up their Unemployment, owed Unemployment or was a recrpient of Social Security incomes.
Another words pretty much everyone was eligible. The PUA application process even guided you to NOT report other sources of support or income such as Social Security. On the basis that PUA was exempt from its reporting guidelines and they were the same system so would be known by EDD.
For many people this was an unimaginable godsend. Specifically the homeless or those who lived in shared housing situations. I saw many people ending up on the streets in the first few months of the SIP.
But then I saw them start to disappear indoors to hotels or temporary rentals. Because they got PUA. A form of income help none of us have ever recieved or thought would ever come our way..
The Pandemic was a sure, beginning of the end, for a large part of our country's populace..
PUA stopped that. Temporarily.
Only it turned out to be a hidden assault weapon against those people.
Especially if they were Social security recipients. Not just SSI. But ssdi and retirement income people as well.
We all faced an onslaught of reckless overpayments and stopped ssa payments. Literally Social security, refused to acknowledge rules that were in place before the pandemic and rules that were placed because of those Pandemic emergency payments.
Social security got greedy during the pandemic. And manipulative.
On the outside they acted like they were being as supportive and considerate as many other agencies. They stated overpayments and other actions would be stopped for the duration of the pandemic due to office closures. But unlike the rest of the world they created a road map to harm.
In August 2020 they made two separate decisions.
One the publicized. They stated they wouldn't be processing or issuing any overpaymemts that had existed before the date of December 31 2020. They said they'd created a streamlined waiver process for any that may have occurred.
Internally, they ordered all offices and employees to hold overpaymemts until after that date. So as to make all overpayments ineligible for that waiver.
Then they made a move that disgusts me.
They declared the pandemic over as of September 2020 and claimed they'd reopened in full. But not out loud to the public. Only in records not publicized in full until we'll after the first of the year.
I personally experienced and suffered from these manipulations.
When I called in August last year to ask if a gofundme would cause any issues with my payments.
I was promised it would NOT be a problem.
I was told this multiple times including in February 2021 for my review. But at that point I was told the PUA was a problem. One that I needed to report and hadn't. Because EDD had said not too. Turned out EDD was right. SSA was wrong.
Which SSA didn't like. So they issued an overpayment for the gofundme. The one they'd previously okayed.
Since then they've manipulated reporting, lost filed documents, failed to input correct and timely information and kept me from receiving any payments since April. And they are charging me thousands of dollars I don't have.
Because in reality the income from ssi was never enough to support a disabled, abused, homeless , mother and child. Which is why we were homeless. Which is why that gofundme ended up being an unwanted but necessary source of help during a worldwide pandemic and statewide wildfires.
It kept us alive. The people who donated to it kept us alive. The government and local services that collected millions of dollars for years did not keep us alive. They put us onto those streets at the height of all the hell and chaos.
Now, I'm being punished. No my child and I are being punished. And it's coming directly from the government that you and I all paid for and created and essentially hired.
So in all this I now recieve a mediocre $250 on to my direct express card. Yet one more " free source of help from the government during this pandemic recovery period".
Given all I've outlined, how do you think I should feel about this one? Safe? Supported?


The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 National Fellowship will provide $2,000 to $10,000 reporting grants, five months of mentoring from a veteran journalist, and a week of intensive training at USC Annenberg in Los Angeles from July 16-20. Click here for more information and the application form, due May 5.

The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 Symposium on Domestic Violence provides reporters with a roadmap for covering this public health epidemic with nuance and sensitivity. The next session will be offered virtually on Friday, March 31. Journalists attending the symposium will be eligible to apply for a reporting grant of $2,000 to $10,000 from our Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund. Find more info here!


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