By: Dana Toppel

Published: May 23, 2022

The advanced child tax credits issued for six months in 2021 kept millions of children out of poverty and gave families a chance to stabilize. The credit—which sent parents $3,000 for every child age 6 to 17, and $3,600 for every child under age 6—was given with no strings attached and had zero impact on eligibility for other federal benefits. This policy experiment showed that family-centered policies and programs, like guaranteed income, child tax credits, paid sick and family leave, and access to affordable quality childcare work.

And yet, efforts to continue the child tax credits failed. Given America’s commitment to children, what gives? Why is this so hard to get done?

Inherent in the failure of CTC expansion—and other programs like it—is the belief that they’re too expensive; faulty logic that programs like this disincentivize work; and the critique that these programs are too generous, or not targeted enough to the income levels that need the most support.

The cost argument is an interesting one: At $225 billion a year, the expanded CTC would cost less than a quarter of the annual cost of U.S. spending on social security. Investing in children and families earlier has huge cost savings from the upstream effects it has on ensuring children have access to resources in their early years, including food, housing, and early care and learning opportunities.

There is also evidence that countries with higher childhood allowances have higher workforce participation rates than the U.S.; San Diego-based guaranteed income pilot San Diego for Every Child has also seen this trend.

Investing in children and families earlier has huge cost savings from the upstream effects it has on ensuring children have access to resources in their early years.

We need to think smarter about how we invest in our social programs. As an organization undergoing a pilot similar to the advanced child tax credit, we at the Jewish Family Service of San Diego are focused on low-income families with children under 12 years old. Through our program, each family gets $500 a month—no strings attached. And early information suggests that we will find the same results in terms of how people spend this extra cash: on critical basic supports including childcare, food, rent and healthcare.

It is also untrue that parents receiving the advanced child tax credit are unemployed or don’t want to work. In fact, a study led by researchers at the Washington University in St. Louis’s Social Policy Institute (SPI) and Appalachian State University, showed the CTC didn’t reduce employment—but the discontinuation of these payments did force parents out of the workforce. The number one reason for this exodus was unaffordable and accessible childcare that allowed the parents to work.

Of course, San Diego and other major cities across the country have costs of living that are out of reach for many people. Income thresholds will need to be set with great intention, taking into account the geographic differences in cost of living.

With record inflation, low unemployment rates, high-interest rates, and women, namely working mothers, leaving the workforce at record rates—where do we go from here?

The child tax credit had historic bipartisan support, and we can get back to that if we agree that supporting caregivers and children is a top priority for our country. The Bipartisan Policy Center has put forward a package of sensible reforms to get us back on this path by ensuring fiscal sustainability, rewarding work, and ultimately creating a more secure safety net.

We will have to listen, compromise and invest in programs, policies and practices that we know work. We will have to come together as Democrats, Republicans and independents. We have to come together across sector—public, private and nonprofit.

This will be the only way forward. And the cost of not coming together is higher than the compromise to find a way forward that accomplishes our nation’s imperative to support caregivers, families and children.