Before the pandemic hit — and things have surely grown only worse since — almost 12 million children in the United States lived in poverty.
Children made up about a third of Americans living in poverty though they are less than a fourth of the population.
Children were, and continue to be, hit hardest by our nation’s widening gap in income, and a wealth of studies — should anybody need scholarly validation of the obvious — show that kids raised in poverty are in danger of remaining behind the eight ball for the rest of their lives.
They are more likely to do poorly in school, to suffer more from psychological stress and mental illness, to be unable to regulate their emotions as adults, to be unemployed, to be homeless, and to break the law and go to prison.
As part of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, approved by the House on Wednesday and expected to be signed into law by President Joe Biden on Friday, a kind of Social Security for children — a modest monthly check — is to be provided to poor and middle class families for a year.
If this guaranteed minimum income is later extended beyond that first year, as we and others hope it will be, it will amount to a sea change in how our nation approaches its communal responsibility to give every child a fair shot in life.
Sure to stir old debate
The child income provision of the stimulus package, technically presented as a tax credit, has drawn only muted criticism as yet from conservative Republicans, who have been more focused on rejecting the package as a whole. But it’s sure to stir up a familiar old debate, with all the usual talk about the “lazy poor” and “welfare queens.”
How seriously should one take such arguments from the same people who have fought against an increase in the hourly minimum wage to $15? Not very. One way or another, a properly functioning democracy — as a matter of self-preservation if not empathy or compassion — must provide pathways up the social ladder. Above all, no child should be left behind.
The American Rescue Plan expands the existing federal child tax credit, covering 93% of all children. The credit, which has long stood at $2,000 per child, temporarily will be increased to $3,000 for each child under 17 and $3,600 for each child under 6. Unemployed parents who pay no taxes also, for the first time, will receive the benefit.
The tax credit will be given in full to household incomes up to $112,500 for single filers and up to $150,000 for married couples filing jointly.
In a fundamental departure from the old ways, parents also will be able to take a monthly advance on half of their 2021 child tax credit, setting up a smooth cash flow in the manner of Social Security. They will be able to get $250 to $300 per child starting in July and running through December.
Growing financial burden
If the top allowable income before the tax credit begins to be reduced seems awfully high — a healthy triple-figure income — that reflects in part the fact that the financial burden of raising children in the United States has grown in recent decades, not even allowing for the absurdly prohibitive cost of a college education.
The high income threshold also is intended to neutralize the most common argument against any kind of government income guarantee for families — that folks who get “free money” don’t work because they don’t want to lose the “handout.” Because the income threshold is high under the program, middle-class workers will be free to earn good paychecks without having to worry about losing the full tax credit.
We’re not convinced, we should add, that this argument — that government assistance makes for indolent Americans — holds much water. Various studies, from Alaska to North Carolina to Finland to Spain, have concluded that giving people unconditional cash does not discourage them from finding work, as reported by Vox. It may even give entrepreneurs the running room they need to launch a new business, as found in a study in Japan.
Two years ago, Stockton, California, conducted a telling experiment. The city gave $500 a month to 125 lower-income people for 24 months, with no strings attached. At the end of the first year, researchers found that the percentage of recipients who had full-time jobs had jumped to 40% from 28%. Meanwhile, a control group — a similar group of lower-income people who were not given the monthly cash — saw only a 5% jump in full-time employment.
The recipients told Stockton’s researchers that, thanks to the monthly payments, they had more time and wherewithal to look for better paying, full-time employment. They could hire babysitters. They could take off as needed from their part-time jobs.
Every child deserves a chance
Do these kinds of studies convince you that “free money” is not a disincentive for people to work? Perhaps not. And we can’t completely disagree. It’s likely a matter of where the lines are drawn. How much money? What kind of job?
But why then, as surveys show, do the great majority of big lottery winners keep working?
Because working a job, as most of us know, is about more than money.
However this debate shakes out, what we know for certain is that no child should be held back in life in a country that claims to prize social mobility and disdain rigid social classes.
In one of the wealthiest nations on Earth, no child should grow up in poverty.
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