'Huge increase' in child poverty feared as tax credit expires amid omicron wave

'Huge increase' in child poverty feared as tax credit expires amid omicron wave
(U.S. Air Force photo by Todd Cromar)

Kayla Hoffmann, left, training and curriculum specialist, and Bethany Powell, center, watch as David Warren pins mask material to a pattern at the Youth Center April 9, 2020, at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. Children at the center have taken on the task of creating masks for themselves and for care givers at Hill AFB’s Youth and Child Development Centers.

The lapse of Democrats' expanded child tax credit program at the end of last month has progressive lawmakers and advocates vocally warning of a major spike in child poverty in the new year just as the Omicron variant wreaks havoc across the U.S., fueling a staggering rise in infections and hospitalizations.

While some research suggests the highly transmissible Omicron strain causes less severe disease than other mutations, the enormity of the current wave is driving fears of widespread and potentially sustained societal disruptions, with disproportionate impacts on families without the resources to weather more pandemic-induced economic chaos.

Approved as part of the coronavirus relief package that President Joe Biden signed into law in March 2021, the enhanced child tax credit (CTC) provided eligible families with monthly payments of up to $300 per child under the age of six and $250 per child between the ages of six and 17.

Recent survey data indicates that the payments brought millions out of poverty and helped many low-income families afford food, rent, medications, and other basic necessities.

But thanks to the opposition of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and every congressional Republican, the program expired at December's end, cutting off a key lifeline at what anti-poverty activists see as the worst possible moment. The sixth and final monthly CTC payments were distributed to the families of more than 61 million children on December 15.

"Yet another sign of the misaligned priorities of this country," the Rhode Island Poor People's Campaign said Monday in response to the CTC's expiration. "Programs of social uplift are sacrificed to the war economy and militarism."

The New York Times reported over the weekend that with Omicron surging, "economists warn that the one-two punch of expiring aid and rising cases could put a chill on the once red-hot economic recovery and cause severe hardship for millions of families already living close to the poverty line."

Anna Lara, a mother of two young children in Huntington, West Virginia, told the Times that without the boosted CTC, "it's going to be hard next month."

"Just thinking about it, it really makes me want to bite my nails to the quick," Lara said. "Honestly, it's going to be scary. It's going to be hard going back to not having it."

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, wrote Monday that it is "totally unacceptable" for the Senate to let the CTC lapse. In November, the House of Representatives passed a version of the Build Back Better Act that would extend the enhanced CTC payments for another year.

"The Senate must act quickly to pass the Build Back Better Act and restore the child tax credit for millions of families who are counting on it," Jayapal wrote. "The pandemic isn't over—the relief to withstand it shouldn't stop."

More than a million people in the U.S. tested positive for coronavirus on Monday, a global daily record. The Washington Post reported early Tuesday that "more than 103,000 Americans were hospitalized with Covid-19 on Monday... the highest number since late summer, when the Delta variant of the coronavirus triggered a nationwide surge in cases."

Pediatric hospitalizations have also risen at an alarming rate during the Omicron wave.

According to a recent analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, nearly 10 million children "are at risk of slipping back below the poverty line or deeper into poverty" if Congress doesn't extend the monthly CTC payments.

Without congressional action, the CTC will revert back to its previous—and far more exclusionary—form with yearly lump-sum payments.

The Senate Democratic leadership has vowed to move ahead with Build Back Better negotiations this month, but it's unclear how much progress will be made toward a final deal as Manchin continues to obstruct.

On Sunday, Axios reported that the corporate-backed West Virginia Democrat is "open to reengaging on the climate and child care provisions in President Biden's Build Back Better agenda if the White House removes the enhanced child tax credit from the $1.75 trillion package—or dramatically lowers the income caps for eligible families."

It's not clear whether progressive lawmakers would be willing to accept such a trade-off.

"I'm hoping that Senator Manchin will understand that his constituents, like many of mine, live below the poverty line and they need this child tax credit," Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said Sunday.

In a Twitter post late Monday afternoon, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—chair of the Senate Budget Committee—noted that "the American Rescue Plan reduced childhood poverty in America by over 40% through the expanded child tax credit."

"It helped millions of families to survive," Sanders added. "Unless Build Back Better is passed, the expansion will end and we will see a huge increase in childhood poverty."

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