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Messenger: Tax credit checks could be path out of child poverty for many in St. Louis region

Messenger: Tax credit checks could be path out of child poverty for many in St. Louis region

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Drive-thru food bank

Knowledge Murphy, 4, thanks Melanie Acker, left, and Michelle Davis, right, as they put food in the back of the car during a drive-by food distribution event in the Pine Lawn community in St. Louis on Monday, March 16, 2020. The event, which is a partnership between the St. Louis Area Food Bank and Operation Food Search, was originally supposed to be a block party event with vendors and demonstrations. Because of the coronavirus outbreak the event was reworked into a drive-through food pick-up where volunteers distribute food into cars as they pull up. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com.

Draw a circle around St. Louis.

Include most of Missouri, all of Arkansas, the northern half of Mississippi, the western sections of Tennessee and Kentucky, and the southern tips of Indiana and Illinois.

This is where the poorest children in America live.

They are Black children living in the hollowed out north side of St. Louis, where once-stately streets of red-brick homes have crumbled. They are white children living in the coal-mining hills of rural Kentucky. According to economist Hannah Rubinton of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, child poverty in the Eighth Federal Reserve District is higher than each of the other 11 districts around the country.

Rubinton dove into the poverty data recently to study what the increase in the child tax credit might do to families. The American Rescue Plan, signed into law by President Joe Biden in March, increased the child tax credit to $3,000 from $2,000 for children ages 6 to 17, and up to $3,600 for children up to age 6.

This year, the entire credit is refundable, and starting in July, millions of American families started receiving monthly checks for part of the credit. The American Rescue Plan was devised to help lift the country out of dire financial straits caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But the child tax credit, in particular, has been seen as a potential long-term strategy to battle child poverty.

“It’s a very interesting policy experiment,” Rubinton says.

Statistically, the infusion of cash is expected to lift about 4 million children out of poverty. By way of historical measure, Rubinton compares the expansion of the child tax credit to the advent of Social Security, which was created to lift seniors out of poverty.

She isn’t alone in making that comparison. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, has a proposal that, similar to Biden’s child tax credit expansion, would put money directly in the hands of families living in poverty, but it would be administered by the Social Security Administration.

It’s the direct monthly payments from the child tax credit that Rubinton thinks might have the most impact. She describes a single mother with young children who makes only $10,000 a year. Under the old child credit, she would get nothing because she doesn’t have enough taxable income. Now, that woman will receive $3,600, more than a 30% increase in her income.

“It’s a significant change for that mother,” Rubinton says. It also provides income stability, something that has been lacking for many poor people during the pandemic. They may have been sent home from their part-time jobs or been unable to work because of the lack of day care.

When incomes are volatile, so is access to food, particularly in families with children, Rubinton writes. Monthly payments from the increased child tax credit have the potential to “stabilize the income” of people living in poverty and thus decrease hunger and other issues related to being poor.

There are more than 430,000 people facing hunger at some point in the year in the Missouri-Illinois region served by the St. Louis Area Foodbank. This month is a nationally recognized “Hunger Action Month,” and the food bank will be hosting a variety of food drives to help raise awareness, starting with a “fill up the pickup” and virtual food drive that took place on Saturday.

The need for food during the pandemic has been high in our area. Rubinton is hopeful that the recent child tax credit checks will help some families fill the gaps.

“The increased value of the CTC and the changes to its structure will raise children out of poverty and help lower- and middle-income families smooth their incomes during the year,” she writes.

Getting full data on the relative success or failure of the child tax credit expansion will be difficult with all the other complicating factors related to the pandemic, but those studies, Rubinton says, will be important to determine if the expansion, or some other application of direct aid, as Romney proposes, will become permanent public policy.

The current expansion of the credit expires at the end of this year, but with wide bipartisan support for the concept of direct aid to help raise children out of poverty, an extension isn’t out of the question.

There is at least some anecdotal evidence that the tax credit is already working.

“We have heard from some of our pantries that they are seeing a decrease in families with children shopping with them as regularly. This could be connected with the changes to the child tax credit program, where families are receiving the funds monthly instead of waiting for their annual tax refund,” says Teresa Schryver, advocacy manager with the St. Louis Area Foodbank. “We know our families already have so many tough choices to make each month, and these monthly funds they are receiving through the child tax credit program is one way to help them.”

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