Philadelphia Inquirer: Congress can help keep kids out of poverty

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty. Since then, taxpayers have spent more than $20 trillion on anti-poverty programs that achieved mixed results.

Then last year, Congress passed President Joe Biden’s sweeping $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which included an expanded child tax credit program. Under the plan, families began receiving monthly checks of up to $300 per child.

The program was an immediate and spectacular success.

Census data showed it slashed child poverty by nearly 50% in 2021. It is difficult to recall another government program that had such a dramatic impact.

The expanded child tax credit literally transformed the lives of millions of families. More than 60 million children were helped, including millions who were lifted out of poverty. Most families used the money to pay for necessities such as food, clothing, rent, and utility bills.

But there was one big problem: The program was temporary and ended after just six months. Just as the morning follows the night, the child poverty rate increased from 12.1% in December 2021 to 17% in January.

There was a push in Congress last year to extend the child tax credit, but the program was killed by a single lawmaker, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia.

Despite the program’s proven success, Manchin said the money would discourage people from working, though a study refuted that argument. He claimed the money would go to buy drugs, but another study showed that 90% of families spent the funds on basic needs.

Manchin added that the income threshold of single parents making $200,000 and married parents making $400,000 was too high. Perhaps, but it was Republicans who raised the income limits in 2017 as part of then-President Donald Trump’s deficit-exploding Tax Cut and Jobs Act. Before that, the threshold was $75,000 for single parents and $110,000 for married parents.

Manchin’s disdain for the daily struggles of low- and middle-income families is acutely coldhearted considering he represents one of the poorest states in the country. Indeed, a variety of government programs and pandemic aid have helped to reduce poverty in West Virginia and other states.

Of course, the Republicans are no help when it comes to supporting low- and middle-income families. Every Republican in the House and Senate voted against the expanded child tax credit. Given the 50-50 Senate, without Manchin’s support, the program died.

The loss of the expanded child tax credit could not have come at a worse time. Just as families were getting some breathing room on expenses, inflation kicked in, driving up prices for food, gas, and utilities.

Family expenses have increased by an average of more than $400 a month. The higher bills combined with the loss of the monthly government checks have created a double whammy for low- and middle-income families. To be sure, the American Rescue Plan added to inflation, but it also strengthened the economy.

More broadly, research shows that investing in children results in improved health, education, and future earnings while reducing health and criminal justice costs. In Pennsylvania, restoring the tax credit would lift an estimated 121,000 kids out of poverty and reduce the state’s childhood poverty rate by almost 44%, according to an Urban Institute study.

Democrats are pushing to revive the expanded child tax credit during the lame-duck session as part of a year-end legislative package. It would need to happen soon, before Republicans take control of the House and launch their top priority: a Benghazi-style investigation of Hunter Biden.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” Democrats should pass the expanded child tax credit with or without any Republican support. It is not only a smart investment, but also the right thing for a just society to do.