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The stimulus bill's Child Tax Credit expansion is exactly the pandemic relief parents need

Most parents will be getting a check for $250 to $350 per child from July through the end of the year.
Image: A young child wearing a mask sits on his fathers shoulders.
The Covid-19 stimulus bill could be the start of something big when it comes to the government's support for children.Alexi Rosenfeld / Getty Images file; MSNBC

When big legislation makes its way through Congress, peeling back the layers usually reveals the rot inside. Once they're brought into the light, we see why provisions were slipped into a bigger package. But that doesn't seem to be the case with the Covid-19 stimulus bill, which is set to pass the House on its way to President Joe Biden's desk on Wednesday.

Instead, if you examine the $1.9 trillion relief package, you'll find more and more provisions designed to help people than were originally highlighted. Everyone has heard about the $1,400 stimulus checks by now. But have you heard about the provision that one analysis says could help reduce child poverty by almost half? It's there — and it shows how far the country has come in wanting to help the unfortunate since I was a kid.

The bill includes $125 billion in additional funding for the Child Tax Credit, which since 1997 has offered just what it says: a credit to give middle-class parents some tax relief. The stimulus bill would expand on the Child Tax Credit in three major ways. First, it would bump up the maximum credit from $2,000 per child to $3,000. (That would be raised to $3,600 for kids under 6.) Second, it would get rid of income requirements on one end and a refund cap on the other, meaning more families would be eligible for cash.

And finally, its most intriguing aspect: Instead of getting it all at the end of the year, parents who qualify could expect to get checks of about $300 per child monthly starting this summer. At the end of the year, the other half of the credit would be applied to people's taxes and would likely be refunded.

It all adds up to a potential game changer. As things stand, an estimated 13.6 percent of children under 18 live in poverty, according to the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University. Under the provisions in the bill, that number would drop to 7.5 percent of children, the center estimated this year.

The idea that the government should just give money to struggling families with children is actually an old one.

It's a set of changes that would have been dead in the water when I grew up in the 1990s. At the time, President Bill Clinton was going in hard on the concept of welfare reform, which had been deemed a necessity by Democrats and Republicans alike. Poverty was treated with what in retrospect was an almost Dickensian focus on the urban poor and their supposed sloth.

The main villains in this tale were the so-called welfare queens, out there living indolent lives on the government's dime. These ignorant women — almost always Black women in the public consciousness — were constantly popping out children in hope of getting more checks from the government. It's one of those stereotypes that is burned into my brain so deeply that I can't even remember where the imagery originally came from.

That alleged abuse of the system was meant to end with Clinton's signature on the bill creating the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF, in 1996. The "temporary" part is key to understanding the program, which doles out assistance only to people who are able to work. And at the time, everyone agreed that the program was necessary to keep Americans from being too reliant on the federal government.

Twenty-five years later, it's clear that the TANF program hasn't lived up to its promises — at all. "In 2019, for every 100 families in poverty, only 23 received cash assistance from TANF — down from 68 families in 1996," the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities wrote last year. "This 'TANF-to-poverty ratio' (TPR) is nearly the lowest in the program's history."

The idea that the government should just give money to struggling families with children is actually an old one. TANF took the place of a Depression-era scheme called the Aid to Families With Dependent Children program. But the more the program became available to nonwhite families, the more the backlash grew until we hit the welfare reform outcry of the 1990s.

But now, the idea is gaining some interesting new supporters. In a sign that the times may be changing, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, introduced a bill last month that would also provide families with monthly cash benefits of $250 to $350 per child. His version would require cutting other social programs, but it's a start. And counter to claims that the payments would discourage work, they could help save jobs for people who don't qualify for unemployment benefits but are still unable to provide things like child care during their working hours.

There are going to be a lot of questions about the effects of this bill once it is signed and enacted. I'm sure social scientists are already champing at the bit to dive into the data to see whether the results mirror those of an experimental program in Stockton, California, that gave $500 stipends to people with no strings attached. (Spoiler: They were much better off.)

Whatever the outcome, Democrats need to seriously consider what it would take to expand this provision — as it stands, it's set to last for only the next year. Because I, for one, am tired of Congress' doing backflips to justify helping people, coming up with tax write-offs and credits and rebates and whatever else it takes to avoid its seeming like the federal government is helping balance the scales toward the nation's poorest.