How the Child Tax Credit Can Break Cycles of Addiction | Opinion

Originally posted on Newsweek.

Next week, 36 million American households will receive their third monthly payment of the recently expanded Child Tax Credit. The credit, which has a long history of bipartisan support and was increased under the American Rescue Plan, provides families on average more than $400 each month, a cash infusion that experts predict could reduce national childhood poverty by nearly half.

However, the Child Tax Credit expansion is temporary—it is set to expire in December. If maintained, it would lift more than 4 million children out of poverty, provide much-needed tax relief for working families and bolster local economies. Still, some lawmakers are concerned about the cost. They should consider the ways this policy can change lives.

Many of these unsure lawmakers, including several notable Democrats, represent the states hit hardest by the national overdose crisis—states like West Virginia and Arizona. They should view the expanded tax credit and its monthly disbursement as critical tools to address rising drug overdose death rates.

The expanded Child Tax Credit is an investment in the well being of future generations. Addiction has its roots in childhood and adolescence; nine in 10 people with addiction first used substances before age 18. Youth are more likely to develop addiction when they grow up experiencing the stress caused by household financial hardship and parental substance use. By supporting families on a monthly basis, the Child Tax Credit promotes wellness in the children and teens who, one or two decades from now, might otherwise become overdose statistics.

Addiction can happen to anyone. But it has especially devastated communities where poverty, unemployment and housing and food insecurity are high. Each of these factors has worsened amid the COVID-19 pandemic, while physical distancing and stay-at-home restrictions have kept people with addiction isolated and out of treatment and recovery services. As a result, U.S. overdose deaths skyrocketed to their highest level ever in 2020, with more than 93,000 deaths in a single year.

The several hundred dollars that struggling families receive each month through the expanded Child Tax Credit can mean the difference between housing and homelessness, between nutrition and hunger. Pulling families back from the brink of financial ruin averts the despair that can lead to addiction. For families already affected by addiction, the cash support of the Child Tax Credit also provides needed resources for recovery from substance use. People with addiction face enormous medical bills, high insurance premiums and hefty legal expenses for harsh drug possession criminal charges, all of which hamper long-term recovery.

Some have argued that parents with addiction who receive cash assistance will spend the money on drugs or alcohol. This assertion is based on the observation that overdose rates rose in 2020 around the same time that people received their stimulus checks.

Research from other programs that provide cash to families tells a different story. Data from the U.S. and abroad show decreased spending on alcohol and tobacco when families receive cash benefits, likely due to the reduction in stress associated with economic stability. Most parents spend their payments on basic needs and other expenses for their children. The real reason overdose rates rose during the pandemic was that people with addiction were out of treatment, isolated and struggling.

If lawmakers let the Child Tax Credit expire, families will fall into deeper financial despair. Without action by Congress, the tax credit will revert to yearly lump sum payments, rather than dependable monthly support—leaving families and those struggling with addiction without the help they need 11 months out of the year. The benefit will drop to $2,000 per child, from $3,000 for each child aged 6-17 and $3,600 per child under age 6. Furthermore, it would become unavailable to many parents who need it most. Before the passage of the American Rescue Plan, the policy denied full benefits to the lowest-income Americans, disproportionately leaving out rural families and families of color. Under the expansion, over 90 percent of families, including those with the lowest incomes, receive the full tax credit, ensuring benefits for everyone at risk of economic hardship and, as a result, addiction.

Child health experts like us have watched families fall into economic despair and worsening addiction during the COVID-19 pandemic. But we have also seen federal assistance help families keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. Lawmakers should permanently expand the Child Tax Credit to give families financial security and hope for the future, and to insulate against the worsening addiction crisis.

Dr. Scott Hadland is a pediatrician and the chief of adolescent medicine at MassGeneral Hospital for Children and Harvard Medical School. Allison Bovell-Ammon is Director of Policy Strategy for Children’s HealthWatch at Boston Medical Center.