As the child tax credit ends, one family navigates a new, familiar reality

Originally posted on The Boston Globe.

For six months, direct payments to children changed the household math for many families. Now they’re over.

Starting in July, Rebecca Wood’s tight family budget was buoyed by a federal payment that landed in her bank account on the 15th of each month — no strings attached.

It was $250 for her and her daughter Charlie, a wispy-haired 9-year-old who loves pink, princesses, and the early aughts Boston band Dispatch. “Such a girly girl,” Wood said.

The money went toward whatever seemed most urgent: Electric bills. Groceries. Debt payments. A refill on an asthma inhaler. A warm coat.

“There was something always hanging over my head,” Wood said. “It’s about putting out the fire that’s closest to you.”

But on the 15th of January, no money came for Wood or 35 million other families nationwide. A broad, brief experiment in federal aid for children — expanding the Child Tax Credit to as much as $300 for each kid under 5, $250 for those between 5 and 17 — came to an abrupt end. And efforts to extend it died when President Biden’s Build Back Better Act fizzled in the Senate.

Created as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan relief bill, the funds were once touted as a tool for upward mobility. “This would be the largest ever one-year decrease in child poverty in the history of the United States of America,” Biden said in July.

And it was.

For the first time, the credit reached low- and no-income families who were previously ineligible because they did not earn enough to owe income taxes, said Alison Bovell-Ammon of Children’s HealthWatch, a Boston-based public health network that tracks the impact of legislation.

Around 1 million children in Massachusetts benefited from the payments, and 160,000 kids were brought closer or above the poverty line. Food insecurity among households with children fell by 26 percent, according to a recent study.

The credit illustrated something the government should have already known, Bovell-Ammon said.

“Reducing child poverty is good policy,” she added. “Investing in our children is critical to the well-being of our workforce and the generations to come.”

It’s now caught up in a political scuffle, even as COVID cases surged rapidly, classrooms and day cares find themselves short-staffed, and inflation soars.

And so for millions of families like the Woods, that means that their little relief from the messy tangle of everyday expenses is gone.