My almost-teen son returned recently from a three-week stay with his grandparents, and at the same time our household hummus budget rose by roughly a gazillion percent to its previous towering levels. Having a child go away for a while and return is a good way to be reminded of a fundamental truth: Parenting is expensive, even for middle-class families.
So, yes, it's good news that Thursday the IRS started sending checks to families with children — as much as $300 per child, depending on their age — and that benefit will reach all but the richest families in America: The Biden administration expects that 88 percent of the nation's kids will receive the aid. The real hope and promise is that the new program will alleviate the scourge of child poverty — as many as 4 million children could be lifted above the federal poverty line.
That's if everything works as expected. And there is reason for concern on that count.
For many working families, the checks are just a different way of receiving the Child Tax Credit, which they previously took as a lump sum return on their taxes at the end of every year, with the total benefit expanded from $2,000 per child to up to $3,600. But the new program also extends the payments to families who otherwise earn too little to file a tax return, which means they will have to apply directly for the aid. The new IRS website for making such applications is, by all accounts, a disaster — difficult to find and cumbersome to use. "Making poor people eligible for the program is not the same thing as enrolling them in it," observed Matt Bruenig at the People's Policy Project. Which means there's a real danger that many of the families most in need of aid won't end up getting it, either because they can't use the website or are intimidated by the steps needed to complete the application. The new CTC program could end up accidentally widening economic equality by providing additional support to working families while leaving the neediest behind.
The good news is that these kinds of errors can be overcome: Remember when the earliest Obamacare website fell apart upon launch back in 2013? The program is thriving now. Working families can certainly use the money, but if the Biden administration doesn't do a better job of bringing poor children along, the new program will fall short of its promise.