Permanently Expanding the Child Tax Credit Would Help Close Educational Opportunity Gaps

Those of us who support closing educational opportunity gaps have a lot on our plates right now.  We are watching states cut taxes instead of investing in teachers, counselors, and enriched curriculum.  It seems that momentum has slowed for ending the misguided scheme of high-stakes test-and-punish school accountability, and, based on test scores, states continue to rank and rate public schools and take over or shut down the so-called “failing” schools.  Laws condoning racism and anti-gay bias are winning in many state legislatures.  We are watching legislatures expand all kinds of private school tuition vouchers at the expense of their states’ public education budgets and watching the charter school lobby protest any kind of reasonable oversight of the largely unregulated, rapaciously greedy, privately operated charter school sector.

So, why do I think advocates for public education should work to support one more priority: pressing Congress to restore the expanded and fully refundable child tax credit that Republican senators along with Joe Manchin blocked when they derailed President Biden’s Build Back Better bill?

I’ll admit that for most of us who are focused on confronting the myriad challenges for the public schools, the complexities of addressing child poverty are not an area of expertise. But I think it is essential that we step back and consider David Berliner’s words: “(T)he big problems of American education are not in America’s schools. So, reforming the schools, as Jean Anyon once said, is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door. It cannot be done!  It’s neither this nation’s teachers nor its curriculum that impede the achievement of our children. The roots of America’s educational problems are in the numbers of Americans who live in poverty. America’s educational problems are predominantly in the numbers of kids and their families who are homeless; whose families have no access to Medicaid or other medical services. These are often families to whom low-birth-weight babies are frequently born, leading to many more children needing special education… Our educational problems have their roots in families where food insecurity or hunger is a regular occurrence, or where those with increased lead levels in their bloodstream get no treatments before arriving at a school’s doorsteps. Our problems also stem from the harsh incarceration laws that break up families instead of counseling them and trying to keep them together. And our problems relate to harsh immigration policies that keep millions of families frightened to seek out better lives for themselves and their children…  Although demographics may not be destiny for an individual, it is the best predictor of a school’s outcomes—independent of that school’s teachers, administrators and curriculum.”  (Emphasis in the original.)

UNICEF statistics show that in 2018, 35 OECD nations had a child poverty rate lower than the rate in the United States. As advocates for the public schools that serve the mass of America’s poorest children, I think we ought to trust the experts who explain how best to ameliorate our nation’s outrageous child poverty. They seem to agree that one simple Congressional action—restoring the American Rescue Plan’s temporary expansion of the Child Tax Credit—would enormously reduce child poverty in the United States.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Chuck Marr reports: “Last year’s expansion of the Child Tax Credit was a striking success, lifting an estimated 3.7 million otherwise-poor children (3 in 10) above the monthly poverty line in December 2021. The credit’s full refundability (ensuring that children with the lowest incomes get the full credit) was the main driver of its poverty reduction; making that provision permanent could have life-long positive impacts in health, educational attainment, and ultimate earnings power for millions of children.”

Until last year’s American Rescue COVID relief bill, families whose incomes were so low they did not pay enough in taxes to be refunded received only partial benefits from the Child Tax Credit. And if a family had no income and paid no taxes, the family received no Child Tax Credit whatsoever. In a more recent report, Marr adds: “Absent a new expansion, the expiration of the Rescue Plan’s expanded Child Tax Credit will push a projected 4.1 million children back below the poverty line in 2022, of whom 1.6 million are Latino, 1.2 million are white, 930,000 are Black, and 132,000 are Asian… (A)nnual poverty rates among Black, Latino, and American Indian or Alaska Native children would be an estimated 8 to 9 percentage points higher without the Rescue Plan expansion than if the expansion were still in place. The greatest driver of these rises in poverty would be the loss of the expanded credit’s full refundability. Accordingly making the full credit available to children in families with the lowest incomes would be key to reducing child poverty.”

Writing for The Hill, Albert Hunt identifies a widespread bias of many Americans: that poor people are basically lazy and will only waste the money: “Critics, many Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), have charged making it refundable would create incentives not to work. There are even charges that some recipients would spend the extra money on drugs rather than their kids.”

The Brookings Institution just confirmed the lie in that bias. Instead parents used the money primarily for food, basics, and paying down credit card debt: “Overall, our findings suggest that the expanded CTC supported eligible families in several critical ways. First, the credit allowed families to cover routine expenses, such as housing, food, utilities, clothing, and other essential items for their children while also helping families to save for emergencies and pay off debt. Because one of the primary uses of the benefit was on food, it is not surprising that the CTC significantly lowered eligible families’ food insecurity and helped them afford healthier, balanced meals for their children. Additionally, the CTC reduced overall economic insecurity for eligible households, as evidenced by their declining credit card debt, lower eviction risks, stronger rainy-day funds, and reduced reliance on payday loans, pawn shops, and selling blood plasma to make ends meet.”

It is to be hoped that Senator Manchin has noticed the Brookings study.  It has been widely reported in West Virginia’s newspapers.  The Intelligencer.Wheeling News-Register reported “The study also found that the monthly CTC payments to families did not encourage parents to not work, but likely led them to seek professional training and classes.”  “The survey indicated….  58%… had used the money for essential items, with 56% noting they had purchased additional food with the funding. Another 49% responded they had used the money for emergency savings, with 42% noting it was directed toward debt payment.”

A second new report from the Center for Law and Social Policy, the University of California at Berkeley, the Children’s Defense Fund, the Urban Institute, and other partner organizations describes how last year’s Child Tax Credit payments actually helped parents get to work: “During the phone interviews with respondents, parents commented how the monthly payments helped them afford transportation to get to work and covered the cost of child care that allowed them to work additional hours. One mom named Jasmin, who has two kids and lives in New Jersey, explained how transportation costs take up a large portion of her monthly budget… The monthly CTC payments provided her with more resources to pay for the transportation to get to and from her job.”

What about inflation?  Wouldn’t re-establishing last year’s temporary expansion of the Child Tax Credit drive more inflation?  Writing for the NY Times, Ezra Klein discounts this worry: “Nor is inflation a reason to leave children in poverty. Extending the expanded child tax credit would cost about $100 billion per year for the next few years—less than 0.5 percent of U.S. G.D.P.  And it could easily be paired with policies raising taxes or cutting spending elsewhere, making the overall impact on spending nil.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Chuck Marr backs up Klein’s judgment: “Rising prices are no reason for policymakers to delay or avoid taking action on critical policies such as extending the Child Tax Credit expansion. For struggling families, in fact, they make the task more urgent. The Rescue Act’s expansion of the Child Tax Credit would amount to roughly 0.5 percent of gross domestic product. It would provide extremely meaningful income support for millions of low-income families, but it would generate little or no inflationary pressure…. Policymakers need to act.”

The Washington Post‘s E.J. Dionne Jr. summarizes the depth of the need to support children growing up in poverty: “Our society claims to love children, admire parents and revere the family. But our public policies send the opposite message… It’s hard to think of work more important to a society’s long-term well-being and prosperity than raising children. Yet the market economy values work outside the home that produces goods, services, and profits far more than the work of parenting. While parenting’s value is, well, infinite, it goes largely unmeasured in our gross domestic product… Our country needs a sensible family policy. That’s why child care, universal pre-K, family leave and an expanded child tax credit were central components of President Biden’s Build Back Better plan. But our debate last year about his proposal rarely got to the merits.”

Ameliorating child poverty in the United States is a moral imperative. It is important for supporters of public education to join child advocacy organizations in standing behind Congressional champions like Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet and Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who are pushing Congress permanently to expand the Child Tax Credit and make it fully refundable.

Pandemic Only Reteaches America What We Should Have Learned Already about Public School Inequality and Child Poverty

What we expect public schools to accomplish has a lot to do with how much we take the institution of universal public schooling for granted. For a long time, we haven’t really been seriously considering the collective needs of our children and their public schools. And when children and their public schools struggle, we elect people with other priorities to represent us in the state legislature and Congress.

Back in 1998 in a book called A Passion for Democracy, the late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber pointed out what a lot of people still fail to notice: “In many municipalities, schools have become the sole surviving public institutions and consequently have been burdened with responsibilities far beyond traditional schooling. Schools are now medical clinics, counseling centers, vocational training institutes, police/security outposts, drug rehabilitation clinics, (and) special education centers… Among the costs of public schools that are most burdensome are those that go for special education, discipline, and special services to children who would simply be expelled from (or never admitted into) private and parochial schools or would be turned over to the appropriate social service agencies (which themselves are no longer funded in many cities.)  It is the glory and the burden of public schools that they cater to all of our children, whether delinquent or obedient, drug damaged or clean, brilliant or handicapped, privileged or scarred. That is what makes them public schools.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, pp. 226-227) (emphasis in the original)

Last week in a powerful Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss revisits the same theme in a very different context.  She has noticed a thread that runs through two years of press coverage about public schools during the pandemic: “If you Google ‘lessons learned about schools during the pandemic,’ you will see a long list of articles that purport to tell us about all the things we learned about teaching and learning in the two years since the coronavirus crisis began in March 2020. Many of the pieces highlight similar ‘lessons’—on inequity, technology, in-school learning, funding mechanisms and other issues—that seemingly hadn’t been thought of before.”

Strauss believes we ought to have learned all of these “pandemic” lessons over the decades that preceded the onset of COVID-19. Here are some of the themes she observes in recent COVID press coverage: “We learned… that… in person school… is much better for most students…. Millions of students go to school without working HVAC systems…. Millions of students would go hungry if they didn’t get meals at school…. Millions of America’s young people go to school with significant mental health issues and that schools did not have the capacity to deal with them…. Technology in schools… has significant limits and is not the heart of great teaching…. Teachers don’t just teach subject matter but are asked to be counselors, role models, mentors, identifiers and reporters of child abuse, testing administrators, disciplinarians, child advocates, parents communicators, hall and lunch monitors…. School districts were largely not ready for a crisis of this magnitude and need to become more flexible to accommodate changes in routine and student needs.”

Strauss concludes: “(F)or anybody paying the slightest bit of attention there is nothing on the list of pandemic school ‘lessons’ that we didn’t already know before COVID-19—and for a long, long time.”

Among the biggest lessons we learned again during COVID is about inadequate school funding and inequity across districts and states. Strauss explains that federal Title I funding to support schools serving concentrations of the nation’s poorest children, is inadequate and not targeted enough to the nation’s very poorest schools.  Further, “At the state and local levels, where most of education funding emanates, we’ve read report after report over decades about the persistent differences in funding per student from district to district, state to state, suburb vs. urban, urban vs. rural. States have different ways they allocate K-12 and special funding—and the amounts vary widely; in fiscal year 2020, according to the Census Bureau, New York State spent $25,520 per student while Idaho spent $8,272 per student and Florida spent $9,937 per student.  There are vast differences within states as well; reports released periodically show wide differences across school district boundary lines. For example, a 2019 report by EdBuild found that ‘almost 9 million students in America—one in five public schoolchildren—live virtually across the street from a significantly whiter and richer school district.'”

In Schoolhouse Burning, published in 2020, constitutional scholar, Derek Black summarized the fiscal condition of school districts in the decade between the 2008 Great Recession and the onset of COVID-19: “Before the recession of 2008, the trend in public school funding remained generally positive… Then the recession hit. Nearly every state in the country made large cuts to public education. Annual cuts of more than $1,000 per student were routine.” “(I)n retrospect…. the recession offered a convenient excuse for states to redefine their commitment to public education… By 2012, state revenues rebounded to pre-recession levels, and a few years later, the economy was in the midst of its longest winning streak in history. Yet during this period of rising wealth, states refused to give back what they took from education. In 2014, for instance, more than thirty states still funded education at a lower level than they did before the recession—some funded education 20 percent to 30 percent below pre-recession levels.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 31-33)

During COVID-19 we learned again about unequal access to computers and broadband.  Strauss writes: “The digital divide? The term emerged in the mid-1990s to describe the gap between families with access to computers and those who don’t. The definition broadened to include access to the Internet, and, later, to inequity in usage and skills… In April, 2020, according to the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of parents with lower incomes who had children in school that were remote due to the pandemic said their children would likely face at least one of three digital obstacles to their schooling, such as a lack of reliable internet at home, no computer at home, or needing to use a smartphone to complete schoolwork.'”

Another thing we learned about again during COVID is America’s outrageous rate of child poverty. UNICEF statistics show that in 2018, 35 OECD nations had a child poverty rate lower than the rate in the United States.  Strauss reports on one of the many ways we relearned this lesson during COVID: “That children would go hungry without free and reduced-price meals at schools is, again, hardly news. The School Lunch act of 1946—repeat, 1946, was set up to help students from low-income schools get free or reduced-price lunches. The need was obvious then, and neither the awareness of that need nor the program ever disappeared. In 1966, the School Breakfast Program began a two-year pilot and that was extended a number of times. By 1975, the program received permanent authorization… According to the Children’s Defense Fund, in 2019, more than 1 in 7 children—nearly 11 million—lived in households considered ‘food insecure,’ meaning there isn’t enough to eat and families skip meals, eat low-cost food or go hungry.”

And during COVID we again learned about American students’ need for counseling and mental health support at school. Strauss writes: “There is a lot of attention now being placed on the mental health stresses on students during the pandemic…. But let’s be clear: Children have been in crisis in this country for years.” Strauss cites a declaration of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association. The declaration says: “Rates of childhood mental health concerns and suicide rose steadily between 2010 and 2020… and by 2018 suicide was the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-24.”

Again and again, staff shortages in underfunded schools have left many students needing far more support. Strauss writes, “In U.S. public schools today, it’s estimated there is one school psychologist for every 1,381 students… According to the latest available information from the American School Counselor Association, there was one counselor for every 482 students in 2014-2015.  It’s nearly twice what the association recommends….”

Congress and the state legislatures could have taken extensive steps to reduce these challenges facing our children and their schools year after year, but such investments have been sporadic at best, and at the federal level during COVID, funding increases have been temporary. The allocation of temporary COVID relief from the federal government has not significantly alleviated the intersection of inadequate school funding and the unmet needs of children in school. Temporary COVID relief is a one-time investment, and public schools cannot hire salaried permanent staff with the dollars. Certainly COVID relief dollars were spent to alleviate the digital divide among children, but we know that lack of access to remote schooling during the pandemic still affected many children.

Long term solutions continue to be delayed.  While the Biden administration and many Congressional Democrats tried hard to pass Build Back Better—with permanent expansion of the Child Tax Credit to help the poorest American families with children, more dollars for childcare support, and other supports for the well being and health of poor children—the bill has languished in Congress with an uncertain future.

Another example is the fate of full-service wraparound Community Schools. The Children’s Aid Society began opening full-service Community Schools in New York City in 1992 and 1993 as a model for programming in schools where child poverty is concentrated. These are schools with family medical and social services located right in the school building. But in this year’s FY 2022 federal budget passed finally last month, after President Biden proposed spending $430 million for full-service Community Schools, Congress allocated only $75 million, an increase from the previous year’s investment of only $30 million, but not enough to make a dent in the meeting the need.

Valerie Strauss concludes her recent column: “So much for the ‘lessons’ we learned about our schools during the pandemic. The problems rooted in these lessons have long existed. Americans and the people they elect to make policy have known about them for decades. They have simply chosen to do other things rather than make serious attempts to fix them.”

Strauss adds one other thing that happened again during the pandemic: our tendency to blame teachers when things don’t go smoothly at school instead of looking at our own responsibility for resourcing schools adequately: “(T)here was a brief moment at the start of the pandemic that (teachers) were hailed as heroes…. But it didn’t take long for that narrative to… revert to the teacher-bashing of old as educators became villains for demanding vaccine mandates and safety precautions in schools…. (V)itriol about teachers and public schools became common again.” (Emphasis is mine.)

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 Would Reduce Economic Injustice Among America’s Children

Today, with the Build Back Better Bill awaiting action in the U.S. Senate, it’s a good time to reflect on the Victorian British attitude that prefigured Americans’ faith in personal responsibility. Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle who oversees provisions for the poor in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, complains: “We have given away… a matter of twenty quartern loaves and a cheese and a half, this very blessed afternoon, and yet them paupers are not contented… Why here’s one man that, in consideration of his wife and large family, has a quartern loaf and a good pound of cheese, full weight. Is he grateful, ma’am? Is he grateful? Not a copper farthing’s worth of it!  What does he do, ma’am, but ask for a few coals; if it’s only a pocket handkerchief full, he says! Coals! What would he do with coals? Toast his cheese with ’em, and then come back for more. That’s the way with these people, ma’am; give ’em a apron full of coals to-day, and they’ll come back for another the day after to-morrow, as brazen as alabaster.”

This blog quoted from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist in December of 2017 in a post criticizing an important economic policy: Congressional passage of President Donald Trump’s tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations. In our culture, even though we profess a commitment to progressive taxation, we like to use tax cuts to reward the enterprising—celebrities, tech wizards, and enormous corporations.

Assuming that people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, we publicly neglect those who fall behind. The problem has been bipartisan. The 1996 welfare reform law Bill Clinton pushed through Congress was called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. Its name presumed that the poor are irresponsible and lazy. Welfare’s replacement—Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)—left our society with alarming poverty and inequality. The law was inequitably administered by state governments.  It also turned out to live up to its name: Temporary Assistance. Many states phased out assistance and cut out the employment training programs that had not been designed well enough to prepare workers for available jobs. And the minimum wage stayed so low that people who did find jobs were paid so little they could not rise above the federal poverty level.  Nobody did anything about the children whose families struggled to survive.

Right now, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed the Build Back Better Bill which represents a radically different philosophy: President Biden’s commitment to helping children whose families live in poverty instead of punishing their parents.  The U.S. Senate is negotiating its version, which many hope to see passed by the end of 2021.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains why a single reform in the Child Tax Credit—making it fully refundable for families with very low income—is for America’s children the most important element in Build Back Better: “Making the full Child Tax Credit available for families with low or no earnings in a year, often called making it ‘fully refundable,’ is expected to generate historic reductions in child poverty compared to what it would have been otherwise. Before the Rescue Plan made the full Child Tax credit fully available in 2021, 27 million children in families with low or no income in a year received less than the full credit or no credit at all.” In the American Rescue relief bill last spring, Congress made three significant changes in the Child Tax Credit: raising the maximum Child Tax Credit from $2,000 to $3,600 per child through age 5, and $3,000 for children age 6-17; allowing families to receive a Child Tax Credit for 17-year-olds; and making the Child Tax Credit fully refundable for the year 2021.  The House version of the Build Back Better Bill extends the first two provisions only through 2022, but the House version permanently makes the Child Tax Credit fully refundable:

“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.”  “Until last spring’s COVID relief bill, many children had been excluded 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)

In a new report last Friday, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities warns about what we can expect if the U.S. Senate fails to pass the Build Back Better Bill by the end of December, 2021 and allows to expire the reforms instituted temporarily for this year alone in last spring’s American Rescue Plan: “If Build Back Better isn’t enacted, the Child Tax Credit would revert to providing the least help to the children who need it most — and some 27 million children would once again get a partial credit or none at all because their families’ incomes are too low.”

The First Focus for Children Campaign outlines other urgently needed reforms included in the House version of the Build Back Better Bill: “The Children’s Health Insurance Program, CHIP, which covers roughly 10 million children would be made permanent, sparing it from serial expiration every few years.”  The bill would also require states to make children’s eligibility continuous over all 12 months for CHIP and Medicaid; would guarantee 12 months (instead of 60-days) of postpartum coverage for mothers on Medicaid; and would provide 4-weeks of paid leave for new parents and expand family leave. Build Back Better would significantly expand access to quality child care and phase in universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds. For young adults aging out of foster care, the law would lower the age of eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit from 25 to 18. The bill would also address hunger among children by making meals available during the summer months when school is not in session.

None of these programs directly invests in public education, but together they will improve educational opportunity. Why?  We know that a family’s economic circumstances affect children’s opportunity at school. Recently this blog covered a new report that 101,000 students in the New York City Public Schools—10 percent of the district’s students—were homeless in the past year.  Decades of research show that such challenges directly affect students’ experiences at school.

The Regents’ professor emeritus at Arizona State University and former president of the American Educational Research Association, David Berliner explains: “It’s neither this nation’s teachers nor its curriculum that impede the achievement of our children. The roots of America’s educational problems are in the numbers of Americans who live in poverty. America’s educational problems are predominantly in the numbers of kids and their families who are homeless; whose families have no access to Medicaid or other medical services… Our educational problems have their roots in families where food insecurity or hunger is a regular occurrence, or where those with increased lead levels in their bloodstream get no treatments before arriving at a school’s doorsteps. Our problems also stem from the harsh incarceration laws that break up families instead of counseling them and trying to keep them together. And our problems relate to harsh immigration policies that keep millions of families frightened to seek out better lives for themselves and their children…  Although demographics may not be destiny for an individual, it is the best predictor of a school’s outcomes—independent of that school’s teachers, administrators and curriculum.”  (Emphasis in the original.)

in 2013, the Stanford University educational sociologist, Sean Reardon released a massive data report confirming the connection of school achievement gaps to growing economic inequality and rapidly growing residential patterns of economic segregation in metropolitan areas. Reardon documented that across America’s metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents. The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.

For the sake of our children and to ensure they can thrive at home and at school, the United States needs to do better. During the Victorian era, Charles Dickens castigated a society that forgot about the well-being of children and sought to punish their parents for laziness. Today, we ought to notice that, like the parish beadle, Mr. Bumble, in Oliver Twist, too many members of Congress have for decades conditioned any sort of public assistance as a punishment for parents’ lack of “personal responsibility.” For too long, Congress has been willing to forget our public obligation to the children who are always the victims of poverty.  President Biden’s approach in Build Back Better instead addresses the vulnerability and distress of too many American children—as a matter of economic justice.

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.”