For 16 months, Natosha Wilson has been at home with her six daughters. She has watched them persevere through virtual school: staring at screens for hours, fumbling with technology that never seemed to work quite right.
Her daughters, who range in age from 10 to 17, will return to their Arkansas public school in August. And even though Wilson has been scrimping by, unemployed and saving every last dollar to offset the money she lost in the pandemic, she wants to make sure her daughters have something new to wear on their first day.
Now she can.
Wilson will receive a $1,000 monthly check for the four daughters listed on her tax return. (Her daughters’ father claims the oldest two.) Using some of the money from the child tax credit — which hits bank accounts of eligible parents this week — Wilson plans to take her kids shopping.
Passed as part of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan in March, the child tax credit will extend to approximately 39 million American families. Single parents making less than $75,000 and couples making less than $150,000 will receive a monthly tax credit of $300 per month for every child under 6 and $250 for every child 6 and over, regardless of their employment status, with some amount of money going to families who make up to $400,000.
While most government programs for parents operate through vouchers or other earmarked funds, the child tax credit will arrive as no-strings-attached cash, allowing parents to decide for themselves which purchases and investments would most help their kids. Parents can decide to fix a car, buy school supplies or put the full check in the bank. It is entirely up to them, said C. Nicole Mason, president and chief executive of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. That degree of freedom and independence is “unique” in modern American history, she said.
For Wilson, a single mom who can’t work full-time because of health problems, the child tax credit is “security." When the pandemic hit, she said she lost almost all the revenue she generated through her side businesses, selling homemade pies and homecoming “mums,” a flowery token worn at high school homecoming events.
“Instead of worrying about what will happen if my vehicle breaks down, if the girls need something, if my computer breaks, if one of us gets sick, now I have that extra income,” she said.
Families should be excited about the child tax credit, said Jess Calarco, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University who focuses on inequalities in family life and education — but there are still some limitations to the program. The child tax credit is unlikely to help propel a wave of women back into the workforce, after millions left during the pandemic, Calarco said. In the United States, where child care is extraordinarily expensive, she said, $300 a month per child is not nearly enough to “tip the scales” and cover the cost. According to New America’s Care Report, the average cost of child care for a child 4 or under is $9,589 per year. That price tag can be far higher in cities. In D.C., for example, the average cost of child care for an infant is more than $24,000.
Some parents have struggled to gain access to the tax credit. Those who don’t file income taxes and receive the credit automatically have to sign up through an online portal, which has proved difficult to use, and cuts off families who don’t have access to the Internet. The tax credit is also only available to U.S. citizens and qualifying residents, which excludes many of the lowest-income families who need the extra money the most, Calarco said.
The U.S. government has been “stingy” with cash welfare since the 1996 welfare bill, a Clinton-era policy that slashed the amount of welfare distributed to families, said Casey Stockstill, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Denver who specializes in race, class and early childhood. The government pivoted primarily to voucher-based aid programs and subsidies for food, housing and child care. Today, very few U.S. families receive any cash benefits through welfare, said Mason. The number should be far higher, she added: When mothers receive direct cash payments, studies show that, overwhelmingly, they spend it on their children.
The money flowing to families through the child tax credit will be far easier to use than other forms of government support, Stockstill said. “You don’t have to engage with an institution and prove you’re still eligible every month.”
The child tax credit is not “free money,” like the stimulus check, Mason clarified. Instead, it is an advance on the full tax return parents would typically receive in April once they file their annual taxes. But that monthly cadence is critically important for many low-income families who can’t wait for one large payment, Stockstill said.
“There is a stable, consistent predictable quality to [the child tax credit] that is important to everyone but especially for poor families,” she said.
Katheryn Burke had no way to anticipate the sudden financial blow of the pandemic. When her fiancé lost his overtime wages as a machine repairman in the spring of 2020, Burke, who had been staying at home with her 8-month-old twin daughters, had to find a job. “We looked at our paycheck and we were like, ‘Oh my goodness, how are we going to survive as a family of four on this income?” said Burke, who lives in Cincinnati.
They moved into a smaller house and sold one of their cars. Little treats like Hulu and Disney Plus had to go, she said. Burke signed up to deliver takeout through DoorDash.
The child tax credit will be a huge help to her family, said Burke, who has been relying on help from her family. Now she won’t have to worry about meeting her family’s basic needs. Once she has all the essentials covered, she said, she plans to put as much of the money as possible into a savings account for her daughters.
“It will make me feel really good that I’m doing something right for them,” Burke said. “I’m not being selfish or anything. Everything will go to them.”
Stockstill, who has two sons, ages 5 and 2, plans to put half of her July tax credit toward child care. Her child-care costs increased dramatically in the pandemic when she enrolled both her kids in at a private day-care center, after her 5-year-old’s lower cost public day-care center closed, depleting her family’s savings. Through much of the pandemic, she said, her family was “white-knuckling it through.”
Once she receives the child tax credit, she said, “it will really ease my stress to know we won’t be living on the knife’s edge.”
For the past few days, Wilson has been monitoring social media closely. As soon as other parents start receiving their checks and direct deposits, she said, she knows they will be posting about it. Whenever the money arrives in her account, she will get an alert on her phone: $1,000 in the bank.
“Whenever it comes, it comes,” she said. “I’m just grateful it’s on its way.”