The Child Tax Credit will help families breathe a little easier. 

By Maryann Broxton

Cognitive ability is finite. If you have ever tried to multitask and discovered that one task was completed somewhat well, while the others were completed somewhat well or not completed at all, you have experienced the effect of this theory. This has nothing to do with intelligence level or lack of capacity, and has more to do with the frontal cortex lobe’s ability to function due to distraction, being under stress, and sleep deprivation. Simply put, we only have so much mental bandwidth. This factor has a great effect on the lives of people in poverty. Programs like the expanded Child Tax Credit (CTC) can help.

People experiencing poverty are thought of, or labeled as, “impulsive,” “lacking budgeting skills,” or “making bad choices.” The reality is, there are no “good choices” in front of you. The societal judgment placed on people in poverty for “making bad choices” doesn’t take into account the mental bandwidth it takes to survive on a daily basis in poverty. The choices people are forced to make can be perceived as neglect, opposed to a consequence of poverty. For example, if a parent is forced to choose between purchasing winter boots for a child or food, the issue not addressed is condemned as neglect. This, combined with the weight of parental guilt of not being able adequately or fully provide for your children regardless of how hard you try, leads to toxic stress, feelings of inadequacy, and being stuck in the cycle of trying to just survive The Now. 

I have experienced this first hand for most of my life due to poverty; but never as much so as when my two daughters were children. I spent constant sleepless nights trying to figure out how to “make it” every month. I had panic attacks; realizing no matter how hard I worked, scrimped, cut corners, and budgeted, that I wasn’t going to make it. Something would always fall short. This process would start all over again at the beginning of the next month. 
The toxic stress that comes from being in constant survival mode stays with you. To this day, seeing fully stocked pantry shelves gives me a sense of relief because it means security; that if nothing else, at least we will be able to eat. 

Starting today, July 15th, the CTC will help families breathe a little easier by lessening hard choices. The monthly payments ($300 per month for children ages 0-5, and $250 per month for children ages 6-17) means parents will no longer have to worry as much as I did about how to pay rent, childcare costs, buying food, and which one to try to sacrifice for the other. It also means they will not dread the beginning of a new school year as I did, knowing it comes with the cost of new clothing, school supplies, and time off of work for a trip to the doctor’s office when my girls would inevitably catch a cold or flu from being exposed to so many other children. They won’t have to walk to and from work to make up for the out-of-pocket cost of over-the-counter medicines recommended. They won’t have to wash clothes in the kitchen sink because the washing machine is not working, and the cost of the laundromat would be the equivalent of dinner for three nights. They won’t have to bring their children in the house when they hear the music from the neighborhood ice cream truck heading their way. And maybe, for the first time, they will be able to say yes.  

The CTC will also provide something a lot of people in poverty don’t have: the luxury of time. The extra money provided by the CTC would have afforded me more time to spend with my children, reading books, going to the park or the movies, or just relaxing and enjoying the day. It will ease their stress, in turn, allowing them to be fully present with their children. 

Parents can enjoy this period of relief, but only if they know about the CTC, and only for a limited amount of time. Most families will get the payment automatically. The IRS will use the information it has on file from the 2020 or 2019 tax returns, or from someone using the stimulus payment non-filer portal last year. The IRS will send the payment to the bank account or address it already has on file. Parents are eligible for the expanded CTC payment even if they have little to no income. Families who haven’t filed taxes can use the IRS non-filer portal to claim their CTC payment. Getting the CTC will not cause anyone to lose means-tested public benefits that they currently receive.

It’s not hyperbole to say the CTC is the much needed life preserver that would have helped me keep my family above water. Unless the CTC is made permanent, it will end after tax year 2021. After a brief respite, once again families will be trapped in the cycle of just trying to survive.