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Families are in distress after the first month without the expanded child tax credit

Children draw on top of a canceled check prop during a rally in favor of the child tax credit in front of the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 13, 2021, in Washington, D.C.
Alex Wong
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Getty Images
Children draw on top of a canceled check prop during a rally in favor of the child tax credit in front of the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 13, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

Had Congress renewed the expanded child tax credit at the end of last year, Jen Cousins would have received $1,000 from the government on Jan. 14.

She would have used the money to fix the brakes on her family's only vehicle, a minivan. She would have taken her four kids to the eye doctor because they all need new glasses. Some of the money would have gone toward saving for fixing the roof of their house in Orlando, Fla.

But in December, Congress left Washington for winter recess without passing President Biden's "Build Back Better" agenda, which included an extension of the expanded child tax credit, or CTC.

The program, which began in July 2021, included an increase in payments that were sent out monthly and broadened the number of families who were eligible. More than 36 million families in the U.S. were receiving payments that ranged from $250 to $300 per child.

Now, families are scrambling to adjust to not having this consistent financial support, while the pandemic continues and inflation is on the rise. Many are having to radically reshuffle their lives, sometimes just to pay for basic needs.

"My husband has the only paycheck in the family. We definitely relied on the CTC a lot," Cousins tells NPR.

Around the same time the expanded monthly payments were announced, Cousins says, the transmission on their minivan went out. Without the credit, it would have taken the family four to six months to save up enough money to get the car fixed. But because of the extra money, they were able to have it repaired in two months.

Unfortunately, the car troubles didn't end there.

"Of course now that the tax credit is gone, the brakes need fixing on it," Cousins says. "So that's another $1,500 that I need to budget for. If I was getting the payment, I could get my van fixed in two or three weeks. Now I'm trying to limit how far I drive."

Since her family didn't receive a check this month, everything from prescription drugs — like the $100-per-month eyedrops not covered by insurance for her daughter with myopia — to dental procedures has been "tighter" when it comes to money, Cousins says.

"Everything is expensive. Inflation is so high," she says. "With six people in a family, there's always something that comes up. Somebody gets sick; someone has to go to the doctor."

"We're at the same paycheck level but the cost of everything keeps going up."

With the end of the monthly CTC payments, Cousins is spacing out her kids' eye appointments because she can't afford to take them all at once. Her husband has to postpone a dental procedure that would cost them $850. And things for fun, like taking the kids out to see a movie, just aren't an option right now.

One in four parents used the credit for child care costs

"The thing that's most frustrating about all of this is that pulling back on the child tax credit actually harms the families that need it the most," Jessica Fulton, vice president at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, tells NPR.

The expanded child tax credit was particularly beneficial for the lowest-income families. The way the child tax credit policy was originally designed, Fulton explains, half of all Black and Latino families and families from rural communities weren't able to get the full credit because they didn't make enough money. The now-expired expanded policy helped close that gap.

She also notes that 1 in 4 families with young children used their monthly CTC payment to cover child care costs. Now that the payments are gone, Fulton says it's unclear what unemployment numbers will look like next month as some people may have to stay home with their kids.

"In a time when what we're wanting is for parents to go back to work, they needed that income boost," she says.

Rachel Rivera is one of the parents who had to make that choice. Without the monthly payments, she's had to work more at mom-and-pop shops and retail in New York, but she's still struggling financially.

"It's been hell trying to get everything paid off on time, balancing staying home or going to work because I do have a high-risk child and COVID is still here," Rivera says.

The single mother says she's struggling to pay rent in Brooklyn and not get evicted, put food on the table and get essentials for her family, including a daughter who has respiratory problems.

"It's been really hard on us," she says, adding that she's trying to be "supermom."

But "when everyone's sleeping," she says, "I'm over here crying, like how am I going to put food on the table, how am I going to pay rent, it's just an emotional rollercoaster."

Rivera found out through Facebook posts that the expanded tax credit was ending and that she wouldn't get a payment in January.

"It was one of those moments when I just had to stop everything and scream from the top of my lungs: no."

For now, Rivera continues to work, while not making full payments on her rent so she can afford food. At the same time, she's trying to make sure her daughter stays healthy. She's asked for help but says financial aid is hard to come by "because everybody's struggling."

"It's really hard to figure it out when everyone is trying to figure it out also," she says.

Biden says his social spending plan could get passed in chunks, but he still faces opposition

At a news conference Wednesday, Biden suggested that Democrats would have to break up his social spending agenda into different pieces of legislation to get it passed.

"I'm not going to negotiate against myself as to what should and shouldn't be in it, but I think we can break the package up, get as much as we can now, and come back and fight for the rest later," Biden told reporters at the White House.

But even if the legislation is broken up, the president still faces opposition from Republicans and Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who said he was concerned about the cost of the legislation and how it would contribute to rising inflation.

Privately, Manchin also reportedly voiced concern that parents who received the monthly credit would use the money on drugs, according to the Huffington Post.

In the meantime, since the program has lapsed, the consequences have already become dire for some children around the country.

The Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University estimates that the sixth child tax credit payment, which went out in December, kept 3.7 million children out of poverty. Without the payment this month, the poverty rate among children has the potential to increase from 12.1% to at least 17.1%, which would be the highest rate since December 2020.

With the monthly payments, a federal survey also showed a drop in the number of families who reported they did not have enough to eat. That number is likely to climb in the coming weeks.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.