Last month, Vera Lynn Watson’s 17-year-old Chevy Trailblazer broke down. “My motor went to crap and started spitting oil,” she says. Watson, a 27-year-old from Illinois who works in fast-food management, and her fiancé, a stay-at-home-dad of their two toddlers, didn’t have the money to fix it. Her hourly wage didn’t allow for emergency savings. She had no other way to make it to her job: “It’s a six-hour walk,” she said.
Not long after, Watson lost her job, precisely because she wasn’t able to make it to work. Her family was already behind on rent, and now they were without an income. Watson’s landlord threatened eviction, giving her a week to figure it out.
Then, two days later, she received a child tax credit for $600. She knew the payment was coming and, when it hit her bank account, she felt a wave of temporary relief: her family would have another month to figure out how to pay rent. “It pretty much just means we’re going to be able to keep our roof over our heads,” she said.
In mid-July, the first expanded child tax credits, passed as part of the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan, began to hit bank accounts—and for parents like Watson, it was a saving grace. Videos of parents dancing in celebration went viral on TikTok, many under the simple heading: “when that child credit hits.” Previously, parents were able to access a child tax credit of a maximum of $2,000 per child when filing taxes. The new, expanded payments partially divide them into early monthly payments and increase the total available amount to up to $3,600 per child. Families will receive monthly checks for the rest of the year, followed by a lump payment of the remainder at tax time. Parents are eligible for the payments regardless of whether they earn enough to owe income tax.
The arrival of these checks did what wonky tax law discussion rarely does: viscerally communicate the human impact of a public safety net. Beyond those ecstatic viral videos, though, is the sober reality of what this money buys, especially for mothers reeling from the ravages of the pandemic. The past year shuttered daycares, necessitated remote schooling, and drove women from the workforce en masse, underscoring the economic disadvantages women face due to systemic failures around child care and unequal pay.
For Watson, the monthly child tax credit payments will “bring the burden off,” but there are still essentials like diapers to worry about and, she said, “I know I’m not able to get another car anytime soon.” Currently, she’s hoping for a job as a restaurant server, but the search has been made near impossible without a car; the closest town is a four-hour walk away. Her husband was only able to find a job thanks to his brother, who also drives him to work. With her next check, she plans to buy her kids, ages 2 and 3, clothes for winter.
Lucy Marcil, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center and executive director at StreetCred, an organization aimed at improving economic stability in part by helping families navigate tax credits, says that these kinds of cash infusions are often used on debt, recurring expenses like rent or groceries, and major capital costs like repairing a car used to get to work. When 125 residents in Stockton, California, were given $500 a month for 24 months as part of a guaranteed-income pilot program called SEED in 2019, a report found that the money was primarily used on food. A smaller percentage of cash infusions go toward “what families see as luxury spending,” says Marcil. But that might just mean buying healthier food, like fruits and vegetables, she explained.
A critical component of these monthly payments is that it is no-strings-attached. Unlike the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which assists people in purchasing certain food products, families can use the expanded child tax credit for whatever they most need. Myrlande, a 42-year-old single mom of a 10-year-old and eight-month-old in Waltham, Massachusetts, used her child tax credit to enroll her youngest in a playgroup that costs $149 a month. Until now, her baby hasn’t had any opportunities to interact with other young children; Myrlande is friends with other mothers, but most of them have older kids. “My baby went on Friday last week for the first time and she really enjoyed it,” she says, laughing about how intently her daughter watched the other children.
Next, she hopes to slowly chip away at a $3,587 electricity bill, which she hasn’t been able to pay during the pandemic. Her work hours as a certified nurse assistant were reduced because she had to homeschool her 10-year-old, and then she went on maternity leave without pay. For the time being, she’s getting by on unemployment. The baby’s father, says Myrlande, doesn’t offer much in the way of financial or emotional support. “I feel like it’s another baby,” she said. “I don’t have the time right now.” As a single mom, she shoulders the responsibilities alone, which can be overwhelming. “You have bills for everything, you have to spend for every single minute, every step you take you have to spend.”
Seanita, a 35-year-old single mom of two kids in Augusta, Georgia, said she spent her $550 payment on school supplies: book bags, papers, and pencils. “Being a single mom, it’s hard and this helped me out a bunch,” she wrote via a Facebook message. Seanita has a job in credit restoration, which “helps,” she says, but the child tax credit payment “meant a lot.” She plans to spend all of it on her kids.
The vast majority of single-parent households in America look like Myrlande’s and Seanita’s: They are headed by mothers struggling to make ends meet. Among single parents, mothers are nearly twice as likely as fathers to be living below the poverty line, according to the Pew Research Center.
“In a way, this tax policy is a feminist policy by supporting parents with children and knowing there are a lot of single mothers,” Marcil said. “It is helping boost the economic status of those single women.” Single women are disadvantaged due to everything from unequal pay to unpaid child-care to lack of paid parental leave, she said: This expanded child tax credit is a way to counteract those gendered “punishments,” as she calls them.
Marcil says that it’s “super common” to see people lose jobs because they don’t have a car, as was the case with Watson, or because childcare suddenly falls through. Recently, Marcil spoke with a mom who wanted to go back to work but couldn’t because of the prohibitive cost of childcare. When Marcil told her about the tax credit payment, she exclaimed, “Oh, now I can afford childcare.” Of course, during the pandemic nearly 3 million women, especially mothers, have left the labor force in what has been predicted to “set gender equity back a generation.” Many mothers, especially those working on the frontlines, were presented with an impossible choice amid daycare closures and remote schooling: work or child care.
While the 2019 Stockton pilot program isn’t a direct analog to the child tax credits, it provides some clues about the potential impact. Parents who received the basic income payments felt they could spend better quality time with their kids. The money also allowed people—and particularly women—to exercise more control over their lives. One participant, Chelsea, a single mom who spent years in an abusive relationship, said these kinds of funds would have allowed her to leave much earlier. “I stayed in a bad marriage for longer than I should have because I didn’t have the funds or the means to leave,” she said.
Stephen Nuñez, a lead researcher on guaranteed income at the Jain Family Institute, says that cash assistance for families is linked to drops in intimate partner violence. “One, because the parents are not fighting about money, the triggers for some of these violent events drop,” he explained. “The second thing is that some of the women leave. They’re empowered to get out of a toxic relationship.”
Often, monthly cash payments help cover concrete essentials, like food and rent. Sometimes they buy women, and mothers especially, something less tangible: the ability to address their own needs.
The SEED study noted that “women who spend much of their life and time performing unpaid care work within their networks described how the twin forces of alleviating financial stress alongside an infusion of time allowed them to prioritize themselves in ways they ignored for years.” This allowed for dental work catchup and preventative medical care. “However, it also unexpectedly provided newfound freedom to hear and center their own needs, desires, and wants in ways that improved their quality of life,” the researchers wrote. Things like “fixing one’s own car instead of someone else’s; money for spending time with friends instead of diverting everything for children or extended kin.”
The paper gives the example of a woman who bought diapers for her grandchildren, as well as “an adequate amount of feminine hygiene products for the first time in months.” She had prioritized her grandkids over her own “basic hygiene” needs.
But guaranteed income alone can’t address every facet of gender inequality. Women were shut out from some of the freedom men gained in the SEED study. The lessening of financial stress meant some participants could take meaningful risks, like going after an internship for career advancement. But “the burden of unpaid care work created a ceiling on risk-taking for some women,” specifically because they were supporting family and community networks “left unmet by the market and safety net.” The authors concluded that guaranteed income cannot be a singular approach to economic stability. It has to be undertaken alongside other initiatives, including addressing “the unique barriers that women face in the market through paid family leave and universal child care.”
The same is true of the expanded child tax credit. Congress is considering extending the program, and advocates hope to see it made permanent policy. As Marcil put it: “Raising a child is not a one-year endeavor.” Making the monthly payments a permanent fixture of American life would bring the U.S. more in line with other industrialized countries that provide child allowances, as well as universal childcare and paid family leave. We have already seen the enormous impact on poverty levels from Covid-era programs that put money in people’s pockets.
Myrlande is hopeful that the expanded child tax credit will extend beyond this year, especially as she anticipates an exhausting schedule, returning to work as a nurse assistant at night while caring for her baby during the day. “For a single person like me with these kids, it’s going to be very helpful,” she said, in-between her baby’s cries. “It’s gonna be a game-changer.”