Although Manchin Doomed the Child Tax Credit in Build Back Better, Discussion Hasn’t Totally Stopped

It would appear that Senator Joe Manchin’s sabotage of the expanded Child Tax Credit as part of Build Back Better has killed the restoration of last year’s extraordinary but temporary improvement of this federal program as part of the American Rescue Plan COVID relief bill. But America’s child poverty advocacy coalition has not yet given up and neither have the experts at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Democratic leaders in Congress—Senators Sherrod Brown, Michael Bennet, Cory Booker, Ron Wyden and Raphael Warnock—and Representatives led by Rosa de Lauro are still in conversation with Republican Senators Mitt Romney, Richard Burr and Steve Daines, who have offered two versions of their own Republican Child Tax Credit proposal.

It is urgently important for America’s public school educators and child advocates to keep on pushing for expanding the Child Tax Credit and making it fully refundable. The educational damage of child poverty cannot be solved through school reform. While teachers can support children whose lives are ravaged by our society’s alarming economic inequality, public schools alone cannot undo the stresses and privations that poverty imposes on America’s poorest children.

Much of the ongoing conversation this month has been about the Family Security Act,  proposed by Senator Romney and other Republicans, which would replace the Build Back Better Better version of the Child Tax Credit that was rejected by Senator Joe Manchin. Last week a coalition of national child advocacy organizations, the First Focus Campaign for Children, wrote a letter to Senators Mitt Romney, Steve Daines and Richard Burr to explain why their recent version of the Family Security Act isn’t good enough: this most recent version will leave America’s very poorest children in worse straits than a version Romney proposed in 2021.

Here is the First Focus Campaign for Children: “The good news is that we know what works to reduce child poverty.” A 2019 landmark National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) “study finds that a child allowance, operating as an extension of the Child Tax Credit, is the most powerful tool we have to combat child poverty and narrow the racial poverty gap. Extensive research shows when households with children receive cash transfers, they spend it on resources that support their children’s healthy development—improving their physical and behavioral health and educational outcomes and leading them to earn more as adults… The first version (2021) of the original Family Security Act proposed by Senator Romney would have cut child poverty by an estimated 32.6%… Households with the least resources would have been eligible to receive the full (newly increased) Child Tax Credit… Unfortunately, as the Family Security Act morphed into version 2.0, changes focused on adults were made to the Child Tax Credit and significantly reduced the positive impact it would have on millions of children. The ‘best interests of children’ became an afterthought as the focus shifted to some sort of ‘deservedness’ standards for adults that has the effect of punishing children. As a result, the Niskanen Center’s updated analysis shows that the Family Security Act 2.0 would only reduce child poverty by just 12.6%.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities details the primary reason why the latest version of the Family Security Act would punish children in families with the lowest income: “To qualify for the maximum credit for each child in the family, families would need to have earned at least $10,000 in the prior year… Families with earnings below $10,000 would receive a proportional credit. For example, a family earning $5,000 would receive 50 percent of the maximum credit for each child.”  Families with no income would no longer qualify, but couples earning up to $400,000 per year would qualify as would single parents making up to $200,000 annually.

But, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities further explains: “The $10,000 earnings requirement to receive the full credit would apply to all families, including parents with babies and young children, retired grandparents caring for their grandchildren, and parents with disabilities that may limit their ability to work.  It would also newly require caregivers not only to live with the child but also to have legal custody of the child, which is stricter than current law and may disqualify many grandparents or other relatives who care for children from claiming the credit. And it would impose a new restriction for families that include immigrants: under current law, children must have a Social Security number (SSN) to qualify for the Child Tax Credit, but the proposal would impose an additional requirement that a parent also have an SSN, denying the credit to children who are U.S. citizens if their parents lack an SSN.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains another serious problem when several of the provisions of the newest version of the Family Security Act, are computed together: “The Romney proposal… (would require) families with low and moderate incomes to pay for more than half the cost of expanding the credit… The Romney plan would dramatically cut the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) a credit that provides an income boost for workers with low and moderate incomes, and eliminate the ‘head of household’ tax filing status, which millions of single parents who work at low-paying jobs use when they file their income tax returns… For example, consider a single mother who has a toddler and a daughter in second grade and works as a home health aide, making $25,000 a year. Her family’s Child Tax Credit would grow by $3,640 under the Romney plan, but they would lose $4,105 from the EITC cuts and the elimination of the head of household filing status, for a net income loss of $465. If both children were age 6 or older, the net income loss would be even larger: $1,665.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities summarizes what would be the primary effects of the latest Family Security Act provisions: “Denying the full credit to children based on their parents’ earnings would do virtually nothing to boost parental employment and would withhold help from the children who most need it….

  • “In more than 95 percent of families who benefit from making the credit fully refundable, the parent or other caretaker is working, between jobs, ill or disabled, elderly or has a child under age 2.
  • “Evidence from both the United States and Canada strongly indicates that giving the full credit to all children, including those whose families don’t have earnings in a year, won’t affect adults’ work participation to any large degree. Most estimates suggest around 99 percent of parents would continue to work under an expanded credit.
  • “An earnings requirement hurts children whose parents are least able to meet basic needs, exposing these children to serious hardship.
  • “Research links additional income to better outcomes for children in families with low incomes. The added income could significantly improve their long-term health and how well they do in school, make it more likely they will finish high school and attend college, and boost their earnings as adults.”

When Congress did not renew last year’s expansion of the Child Tax Credit, which temporarily made it fully refundable to all families with children, whatever their income, the program reverted to its pre-American Rescue Plan status. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities emphatically reminds us all of the current Child Tax Credit’s primary injustice: “The major flaw in the current Child Tax Credit has been its denial of some or all of the credit to children in families with little or no income, even though they stand to benefit the most from the extra income. Prior to the Rescue Plan’s temporary expansion of the credit, roughly 27 million children received less than the full credit or no credit at all because their families earned too little. They included roughly half of all Black children, half of Latino children, roughly one-fifth of white children, one-fifth of Asian children, and roughly half of children living in rural areas.”

How a Fully Refundable Child Tax Credit Would Support Early Childhood Development

In a NY Times opinion piece in early May, as inflation was heating up, two former Secretaries of the Treasury, Robert Rubin and Jacob Lew published a plea to Congress to resurrect what they consider the most important piece of President Biden’s Build Back Better bill: “It is our strong view that Congress should act this year to ease the financial strain on low-income families raising children and that these policies should be paid for in a package that reduces the deficit. This is not just morally right but is also a critical investment in our nation’s economic future. As the White House and Congress negotiate economic legislation, they should prioritize making the child tax credit available to families with low or no earnings through a provision known as refundability and expanding support for child care.”

Rubin and Lew assure us all that, while “critics fear that such measures could increase inflation… those fears are misplaced. The plan the White House and the Senate are discussing will both reduce the deficit and make the important investments for a stronger future. While the families who will benefit spend more of their marginal income… than the wealthy who will be taxed to finance this policy, the total reduction in the federal deficit will lower demand by a greater amount. The proposed legislation would, on net, tamp down inflationary pressure.”

Now with inflation the hottest political issue of the summer, it is unlikely that the fully refundable Child Tax Credit, whose six month, COVID-driven expansion under the American Rescue Plan expired at the end of December 2021, will be restored this year.  What is the opportunity that—largely as a result of Joe Manchin’s opposition—we have lost?

Rubin and Lew explain: “Policymakers expanded the child tax credit for 2021 in last year’s American Rescue Plan and, crucially, made the full credit available to families with low or no taxable earnings, known as full refundability. By making these credits fully accessible to families with the greatest need, the number of children living in poverty fell dramatically. The law also temporarily raised the maximum credit… Before last year’s changes to the child tax credit, the parents of 23 million children received either a partial credit or none at all, because their earnings were too low to qualify for the full credit. This left out or shortchanged about half of Black and Latino children, half of children in rural areas and almost one in four white children. The families who needed the credit the most received the least.  Changes to the credit kept an estimated 3.7 million children out of poverty at the end of last year, and its expiration in January caused child poverty to rise 41 percent….”

To learn why this year’s squandered opportunity is such a catastrophic loss, I urge you to read Lisa Gennetian and Katherine Magnuson’s short, lucid, and impeccably documented report: Three Reasons Why Providing Cash to Families with Children is a Sound Policy Investment.  Gennetian is a professor of early learning policy studies at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.  Katherine Magnuson is the Director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconson-Madison School of Social Work. This brief report explores what is known about the impact of family poverty on early learning:

“Studies demonstrate, over and over again, that poverty harms children’s development and that providing families with low incomes with financial resources can improve children’s development, including through increased birth weight, improved school achievement, reductions in juvenile crime and psychiatric disorders, and increased earnings and lower risk of heart attacks and strokes in adulthood… The fact that children flourish when their material needs are met and they have nurturing and stimulating relationships with consistent caregivers has fueled public investments in early education, public schools, and parenting programs to ensure children experience quality caregiving. It has also been a rationale for policies that help families with low incomes meet material needs (such as food, health insurance, and housing). While beneficial, these policies and programs to fill specific needs arising from poverty are companions, not substitutes, for cash income.”

There is wide agreement across social and economic research, that expanding the Child Tax Credit and making it fully refundable is the most effective and efficient policy to support America’s poorest children. Gennetian and Magnuson explain three reasons why:

Cash enables parents to provide the material goods and caregiving that support children’s healthy development, especially during their earliest years of development… Children need many things to be healthy, including a safe home environment and play spaces that are free from pollution and toxins, as well as regular medical care, good nutrition, and predictable routines. Perhaps most important, children thrive when surrounded by caregivers who are attuned to and responsive to their needs. In the U.S., parents are largely on their own to provide these things. For low-income families, piecing together the needed resources is an ongoing, often exhausting challenge that takes a toll on family well-being… Interactions between children and their caregivers and early environments are strong predictors of many aspects of children’s early skills, including language, emotion regulation, executive function skills, and early academic skills… Providing for children’s care and needs is extremely challenging when employment does not pay enough… (W)ork alone is not enough in the U.S. to eradicate poverty among families with children, even in the context of full-time employment.”

Cash can protect families with children from unexpected expenditures or income losses… Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, income instability was becoming more common among the lowest-income households with children. Fluctuations in income month to month have always been more widespread among low-income households with children compared to those with higher incomes. Some of this instability reflects the types of jobs and labor practices in the low-wage labor market, especially just-in-time scheduling… Income instability alone can be problematic, but it is exacerbated by unexpected expenses and low levels of assets and savings. Families with low incomes regularly face a variety of unplanned costs such as car repairs and medical bills… The combination of very low income and economic instability makes it particularly difficult for children to thrive, not only because their needs may go unmet, but also because of the impact of low income and income instability on their parents. Large or frequent fluctuations in income increase family stress… redirect parent time and attention away from parenting and toward the demands of juggling day-to-day basic needs and disrupt family routines.”

Cash enables parents to act and spend in their children’s best interest. Cash avoids the paternalistic nature of some public benefit programs by empowering parents to invest in their children as they see fit. Cash builds on parents’ existing strengths, resilience, and capacities to meet their and their children’s needs… By empowering parents to invest in their children and their environment as they see fit—and thus showing trust in their parenting and related investment decisions—cash can be a mechanism to improve family life… In dozens of qualitative studies, parents with low incomes have articulated the care they put into how they spend their money. Concerns from some scholars and policymakers that families might misspend cash are not borne out by the evidence.”

The 1996 welfare reform, the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act,” which made cash assistance temporary and incentivized parents to get out of the house and work at any job they could find was framed around the idea that poor parents are not responsible. The policies Gennetian and Magnuson describe certainly do not disincentivize work. Instead they consider the needs of the children in families where parents’ work schedules may be irregular and income inadequate and sporadic.

Last week, when the Washington Post‘s Editorial Board spoke to the cash needs of poor parents, the newspaper confronted Joe Manchin’s premise that the parents would very likely waste the money: “There’s no evidence to back this up. In fact there’s more and more data showing that households with kids, especially lower-and moderate-income ones, spent the bulk of the money on the basics: food, housing, and items for schools. The Federal Reserve recently released one of the most definitive reports on how families spent their CTC payments. It shows, yet again, that the money largely went toward meeting basic needs. This was especially true of families earning between $25,000 and $49,999 a year. A third of these families used the money mainly on housing costs (rent, mortgage, and utilities), and 22 percent used it mainly on expenses for kids such as clothing, school supplies, medicines, and maybe a toy.  The most common uses for the money for these families were food, savings, and paying off debt.”

Even in these politically difficult times, the Washington Post Editorial Board presses for action: “We know how to help struggling families with kids. Why isn’t Congress acting?”

Kevin Welner: In Our Alarmingly Unequal Society, Public Schools by Themselves Cannot Be the Great Equalizer

Someone should send Kevin Welner’s timely essay, “The Mythical Great Equalizer School System,” to Senator Joe Manchin, who has said he opposes expanding the Child Tax Credit as part of Build Back Better.

Welner’s essay, part of a new collection of essays, Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, edited by David Berliner and Carl Hermanns, is urgently timely. It examines the educational implications of the philosophy behind what has become the most controversial provision of President Biden’s Build Back Better Bill, now passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and awaiting action in the U.S. Senate: repairing a deeply flawed Child Tax Credit.

Welner, a professor of education at the University of Colorado and executive director of the National Education Policy Center, demonstrates that in a nation with millions of children living in poverty, public schools by themselves cannot provide enough support to compensate for the detrimental effects of alarming economic inequality. Welner examines the old and widely accepted myth that our public system of education is the great equalizer: “Can schools balance our societal inequality? If that inequality is left unaddressed, along with the harm it does to children, can policymakers reasonably expect an outcome of rough equality through focusing instead on building a dazzling public school system that would envelop those children in rich opportunities to learn? Admittedly, this describes an odd (and cruel) policy approach: to first inflict awful harm on children and then pour resources into schools in a desperate attempt to mitigate the harm.” (Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 87)

The Child Tax Credit has provided some support for child rearing since its passage in 1997. President Biden’s COVID relief bill passed in March of 2021 temporarily fixed problems with the Child Tax Credit as a way to help parents get through a year dominated by COVID-19.  For the NY Times, Ben Casselman explains: “Congress last spring expanded the existing child tax credit in three ways.  First, it made the benefits more generous, providing as much as $3,600 per child, up from $2,000. Second, it began paying the credit in monthly installments usually deposited directly into recipients’ bank accounts, turning the once-yearly windfall into something closer to the children’s allowances common in Europe. Finally, the bill made the full benefit available to millions who had previously been unable to take full advantage of the credit because they earned too little to qualify. Poverty experts say that change, known in tax jargon as ‘full refundability,’ was particularly significant because without it a third of children—including half of all Black and Hispanic children, and 70 percent of children being raised by single mothers—did not receive the full credit. Mr. Biden’s plan would have made that provision permanent.”

Because the Senate failed to pass Build Back Better by the end of 2021, these changes expired on New Year’s Eve.  If Senator Manchin would agree, these reforms can be reinstated in the Senate’s version of Build Back Better, which Congressional leaders still pledge to pass.

You can find some of Welner’s research summarized in a newsletter last October describing the National Education Policy Center’s new Price of Opportunity Project: “Those of us who work in or with schools never question the enormous impact that a teacher or school can have on a student. But this essential truth coexists with another truth: that differences between schools account for a relatively small portion of measured outcome differences. That is, opportunity gaps in the U.S arise primarily outside of schools. This should not be a surprise. Poverty, concentrated poverty, and racialized poverty are pervasive features of America. School improvement efforts cannot directly help children and their families overcome decades of policies that perpetuate systemic racism and economical inequality. When children are born in the United States, their educational and life outcomes can all be predicted based on their parents’ education, income and wealth. Compared to the Scandinavian countries and other so-called Western democracies like Canada, Spain, Australia, and New Zealand, American children are inordinately trapped in intergenerational poverty. Inequality in the U.S. is stark and enduring.”

In the longer essay published in Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, Welner explains that between 60 and 80 percent of the achievement gaps as measured by standardized tests are attributable to outside-of-school opportunity gaps based on family income. Unlike President Biden, whose Build Back Better Bill acknowledges the lifetime impact of childhood poverty, Welner explains: “Many policymakers and others are still mired in a type of magical thinking. They have somehow convinced themselves that children’s opportunities to learn outside of school are not particularly important—that policy should simply focus on making schools more equal.” (Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, pp. 91-92)

Inadequate and inequitably distributed school funding across the states only complicates the problem: “Meanwhile the national discussion of school funding is so impoverished…. We hail states like New Jersey and Washington when legislators finally stop dragging their feet in response to decades of court orders in adequacy cases. But the legislators never actually meet or exceed the adequacy standard—and that standard remains far below what is needed…. (N)o state has yet reached… the level of equity that we call ‘minimal adequacy.’ This is defined as the additional resources to give all students a realistic shot at reaching basic levels set forth by state standards…. Even if we were ever to get to that point, vast inequality would remain in place because of opportunity gaps that arise due to societal inequalities.”(Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 87)

Welner believes that federal policy must address childhood poverty both inside and outside of school, and his essay is timely in the context of the dilemma facing Congress this winter. There is widespread agreement among advocates for children that President Biden’s reforms to the Child Tax Credit are the most basic way to begin ameliorating the opportunity gaps that Kevin Welner identifies as the greatest barrier to school achievement among children living in poverty.

First Focus on Children’s executive director, Bruce Lesley quotes from the recommendations of a 1991 National Commission on Children, recommendations advocates used in 1997 to justify the establishment of the Child Tax Credit: “Because it would assist all families with children, the refundable child tax credit would not be a relief payment, nor would it categorize children according to their ‘welfare’ or ‘nonwelfare’ status. In addition, because it would not be lost when parents enter the work force , as welfare benefits are, the refundable child tax credit could provide a bridge for families striving to enter the economic mainstream. It would substantially benefit hard-pressed single and married parents raising children. It could also help middle-income, employed parents struggling to afford high-quality child care. Moreover, because it is neutral toward family structure and mothers’ employment, it would not discourage the formation of two-parent families or of single-earner families in which one parent chooses to stay at home and care for the children.”

Lesley reminds us that, according to the Urban Institute, “under current law, the share of all new federal spending through 2030 for the adult portions of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will be 71% compared to just 2% for children’s programs.”  And he quotes findings from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget—that “while much of spending on adults is mandatory, spending on children is disproportionately discretionary…. Spending on children is disproportionately temporary…. Spending on adults is rarely limited while spending on children is often capped…. Most programs for children lack built-in growth…. Programs for children lack dedicated revenue and thus lack the political advantage and protection of programs for seniors that enjoy this benefit.”

Lesley urges Congress to make permanent the reforms to the Child Tax Credit passed temporarily for 2021 in last spring’s COVID relief bill.  These reforms benefited 65 million children “including an estimated 4 million children lifted out of poverty….”

However, among the three reforms to the Child Tax Credit in the American Rescue Plan— increasing the amount of the per-child benefit, distributing the tax credit monthly instead of once a year, and making the tax credit fully refundable—one reform surpasses the others for ameliorating child poverty.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities emphasizes that, for America’s children, permanently making the Child Tax Credit fully refundable for families with very low income is the most important element in Build Back Better:

“In the absence of the full refundability provision, the first two of those changes would lift an estimated 543,000 children above the poverty line, reducing the child poverty rate by 5 percent… But the two changes plus full refundability stand to raise 4.1 million children above the poverty line and cut the child poverty rate by more than 40 percent. In other words, the full refundability feature makes the expansion nearly eight times as effective in reducing child poverty.” “Prior to the Rescue Plan, 27 million children received less than the full Child Tax Credit or no credit at all because their families’ incomes were too low. That included roughly half of all Black and Latino children and half of children who live in rural communities… This upside-down policy gave less help to the children who needed it most. The (COVID) Rescue Plan temporarily fixed this policy by making the tax credit fully refundable for 2021.  Build Back Better, in one of its signature achievements, would make this policy advance permanent.”  (emphasis in the original)

Build Back Better Bill Would Turn Around Decades of Policy Punishing Poor Children

The U.S. House of Representatives finally passed President Biden’s infrastructure plan last Friday. The Senate passed it a while ago, and the bill is headed to Biden’s desk for signature.  At the same time, Democrats in the U. S. House of Representatives pledged that if the Congressional Budget Office confirms cost estimates for the Build Back Better Bill, Democrats in the House will pass the current version of the plan and send it on to the Senate for consideration. For months, Congress has been debating the programs that are part of this plan, and even if Congress passes it, it won’t be perfect.

Even if imperfect, however, the Build Back Better Bill in its current form would signify a truly revolutionary investment in America’s children. That is because the United States has, for decades, utterly failed to use government to begin to eradicate a morally reprehensible level of childhood economic inequality.

Cara Baldari of the First Focus Campaign for Children explains: “For the first time in generations, we are on the precipice of making serious and long-term progress to reduce our stubbornly high rate of child poverty in the United States. Historically, the United States has had a significantly higher rate of child poverty than other developed countries because we have continually failed to sufficiently invest in our children. While the establishment of Social Security has permanently reduced poverty for seniors, children have remained the poorest group in America. This situation is not due to a lack of evidence on what works to reduce child poverty, but rather the lack of political will to act.”

Since 1997, families who earn enough income to pay federal income taxes have benefited from a tax credit for each child. Last spring’s American Rescue Plan Covid-relief bill made the full Child Tax Credit available to children in families with low earnings or without income, and it increased the credit’s maximum amount—$2,000 per-child last year— to $3,000 per child and $3,600 for children under age 6—but only through the end of 2021. Without the extension of this reform, many children will fall back into deep poverty in 2022.

Balderi presents some recent history: In 2015, advocates for children “worked with Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) to secure federal funding for the landmark National Academy of Sciences study, A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty, which was published in 2019. This study, written by a committee of experts… confirmed that… providing families with flexible cash assistance through a monthly child allowance was the most effective way to combat child poverty, reduce racial-economic inequality, and improve children’s long-term outcomes.”  In a tragic irony, until this year families without income or with income so low they payed little in federal income taxes could not receive the full tax credit, while middle class and even wealthy parents could receive the full credit, thereby reducing their federal income tax.

Last week the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities examined several provisions of the Build Back Better Bill which will, if the law is passed in its current draft form, reduce racial disparities.  The brief leads with the Bill’s provision to reduce child poverty by extending last spring’s expansion of the Child Tax Credit: “Build Back Better extends the American Rescue Plan’s expansion of the Child Tax Credit for 2022, which is expected to lift 4 million children above the poverty line and narrow the difference between poverty rates for Black and white children by 44 percent (compared to what the rates would be otherwise) and to narrow the difference between the poverty rates for Latino and white children by 41 percent.  Build Back Better also permanently ensures that the full Child Tax Credit is available to children in families with low or no earnings in a year. This is particularly important for Black and Latino children, about half of whom received a partial credit or no credit at all before the Rescue Plan expansion because their families’ incomes were too low, compared to about 20 percent of white children.”

In late October, a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Senior Research Analyst, Claire Zippel reported data collected from late July through September by the U.S. Census’s Household Pulse Survey. These data documented that, “Some 91 percent of families with low incomes (less than $35,000) are using their monthly Child Tax Credit payments for the most basic household expenses—food, clothing, shelter, and utilities—or education… Many of these households are receiving the full Child Tax Credit for the first time thanks to the American Rescue Plan’s credit expansion. The Rescue Plan temporarily increased the credit amount, provided for the credit to be paid monthly rather than once a year at tax time, and halted a policy that prevented 27 million children from receiving the full credit because their parents earned too little or lacked earnings in a given year.”

How did parents use the money?  Zippel continues: “Among households with incomes below $35,000 who received the Child Tax Credit, 88 percent spent their payments on the most basic needs: food, clothing, rent, a mortgage, or utility bills.  The Child Tax Credit payments also helped many parents and other caregivers invest in their children’s education, Pulse data suggest. Some 40 percent of families with low incomes used their Child Tax Credit payments to cover education costs such as school books and supplies, tuition, after-school programs, and transportation to and from school. (In some cases, these expenses may be for adults’ own education. About 5 percent of adults in low-income households with children are enrolled in school, other Census data show.)

The NY TimesClaire Cain Miller adds that in its current form in the U.S. House of Representatives: “The Build Back Better Bill also includes extensive investment in pre-Kindergarten for 3 and 4-year-olds and assistance for parents to afford childcare as well as dollars to ensure that “teachers in child care classrooms be paid a livable wage, equivalent to that of elementary teachers with the same credentials… Also as part of the proposal, pre-K lead teachers must have a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education or a related field, though they would be given six years to get the degree with some exemptions based on professional experience.”

Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman strongly endorses these and other proposals to help families and their children: “Democrats may—may—finally be about to agree on a revenue and spending plan. It will clearly be smaller than President Biden’s original proposal, and much smaller than what progressives wanted. It will, however, be infinitely bigger than what Republicans would have done, because if the G.O.P. controlled Congress, we would be doing nothing at all to invest in America’s future. But what will the plan do?  Far too much reporting has focused mainly on the headline spending number.”

Krugman continues: “So let me propose a one-liner: Tax the rich, help America’s children.  This gets at much of what the legislation is likely to do. Reporting suggests that the final bill will include taxes on billionaires’ incomes and minimum taxes for corporations, along with a number of child-oriented programs.”

Krugman, the economist, comments on the economic arguments for Congressional passage of this bill: “(T)here is overwhelming evidence that helping children, in addition to being the right thing to do, has big economic payoffs. Children who benefited from safety-net programs like food stamps became healthier, more productive adults. Children who were enrolled in pre-K education were more likely to graduate from high school and go to college…. As I’ve argued in the past, the economic case for investing in children is even stronger than the case for investing in physical infrastructure.”

Krugman also believes that President Biden’s Build Back Better Bill, philosophically conforms to American political tradition: “Remember, we are the nation that basically invented universal education… America led the way in creating ‘common schools’ that were meant to include students from all social classes, and were justified by many of the same arguments now being made for universal pre-K and other forms of aid to children. So when Republicans denounce pro-child policies as socialist and try to promote private schools, they, not Democrats, are rejecting our nation’s traditions.”

Strategic Advocacy Over Decades Brought Us an Expanded Child Tax Credit: Can the Same Kind of Strategic Organizing Produce School Funding Reform?

On Saturday, after the U.S. Senate joined the U.S. House of Representatives to pass President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, I started thinking about how a huge coalition and strong advocates can sustain support for an important reform even through times that feel bleak and hopeless. Now, as a result of persistent and strategic advocacy, suddenly an election of new leaders has on some level adjusted our society’s collective notion of the role of government.

Welfare reform imposed policies that punished parents who were not working by reducing their access to public assistance. In doing so, President Bill Clinton and the Congress that replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families entirely neglected the needs of America’s poorest children. But as of this weekend, by expanding the Child Tax Credit, Congress accepted the idea that as a society we bear collective responsibility for the well-being of our children. And while the expanded Child Tax Credit is part of this year’s time-limited pandemic relief, my Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and Colorado Senator Michael Bennet have promised to try to make the changes permanent.

Back in 2004, I read Jason DeParle’s powerful book, American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare, about how the 1996 welfare reform harmed children. Since then I have filled my clipping file with DeParle’s articles about our collective responsibility for poor children, most recently last summer, when DeParle pushed for expanding the Child Tax Credit in the NY Times and the New York Review of Books.  At the same time, I realized that powerful research and advocacy organizations—including First Focus on Children, the Center for Law and Social Policy, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Urban Institute, and the Brookings Institution—were working to expand the Child Tax Credit and make it fully refundable. But for years and years the matter of overturning welfare reform has felt hopeless.

In the NY Times this week, DeParle reminds us that an election can bring a turnaround not only in one piece of public policy but also much bigger shift: “Obscured by other parts of Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package which won Senate approval on Saturday, the child benefit has the makings of a policy revolution. Though framed in technocratic terms as an expansion of an existing tax credit, it is essentially a guaranteed income for families with children, akin to children’s allowances that are common in other rich countries. The plan establishes the benefit for a single year. But if it becomes permanent, as Democrats intend, it will greatly enlarge the safety net for the poor and the middle class at the same time when the volatile modern economy often leaves families moving between those groups. More than 93 percent of children—69 million—would receive benefits under the plan, at a one-year cost of more than $100 billion.”

DeParle continues: “While the proposal took center stage in response to the pandemic, supporters have spent decades developing the case for a children’s income guarantee. Their arguments gained traction as science established the long-term consequences of deprivation in children’s early years, and as rising inequality undercut the idea that everyone had a fair shot at a better life… Mr. Biden’s embrace of the subsidies is a leftward shift for a Democratic Party that made deep cuts in cash aid in the 1990s under the theme of ‘ending welfare.’… ‘ The moment has found us,’ said Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who has proposed a child allowance in 10 consecutive Congresses and describes it as a children’s version of Social Security.”

Two weeks ago, the Education Law Center—the nation’s top school finance litigation firm pursuing cases for school funding adequacy and equity under the 50 state constitutions—published From Courthouse to Statehouse—and Back Again, a major report endorsing precisely the kind of sustained, research-based advocacy that helped bring about this week’s Congressional shift to expand the Child Tax Credit. The Education Law Center, whose business is pursuing litigation-based school funding reform, warns—based on successful court victories in Massachusetts, Kansas, Washington, and New Jersey—that along with litigation, states need grassroots organizing, research-based communications, and disciplined messaging:

“Securing new resources for schools requires a majority of elected lawmakers to support finance reform and more critically, to fund it. These legislative debates trigger complicated political calculations about taxation, public and social services, the role of government, and, inevitably race, income, and wealth… The profiles in this report demonstrate that labor and grassroots organizations can play a significant part in galvanizing public opinion and breaking down resistance or deadlock inside the statehouse.”

“(E)ach state’s constitution obligates it to maintain and support a system of free public schools to educate all resident children. This means the amount and distribution of school funding—both state and local revenues—is controlled by elected state legislators and governors. Consequently, improving the way public schools are funded and boosting the investment of tax dollars in those schools can only be accomplished through the year-to-year political process of making laws, and passing budgets in state capitols.”

How to shape public opinion? First the Education Law Center advocates the wide dissemination of research: “(S)uccessful campaigns require research at all stages and for multiple audiences… It is imperative that research go beyond academic circles and be tailored and marketed to broader groups and the public at large.” But research must be part of a strategically framed campaign: “(S)takeholder coalitions helped maintain a unified message throughout both the legal proceedings and legislative deliberations. These coalitions also helped contain potential schisms among stakeholder groups, keeping them internal rather than spilling out and muddying the public debate.”

The Education Law Center urges coalitions pursuing school funding lawsuits to raise enough funds to hire a communications director to manage a well framed and extremely disciplined message. And campaigns “are much more impactful when done in close partnership with grassroots parent, community, and civil rights organizations. These partnerships ensure that the interest of the most important beneficiaries of the campaigns—the students themselves—remain front and center.”

The same kind of sustained, research-based advocacy that paved the way for last weekend’s Congressional expansion of the federal Child Tax Credit is going to be necessary, says the Education Law Center, for school funding reform even when the central strategy is through litigation: “(T)he level and distribution of school funding is controlled by elected state legislators and governors. In the end, improving the education of our nation’s children, especially the most vulnerable, depends on building strong, multi-dimensional political campaigns that can place and sustain the demand for well-funded and well-resourced schools squarely at the foot of state elected representatives and governors. Lawyers, when working in deep connection to those campaigns, can use the courts to amplify and advance that demand.”