Food insufficiency among U.S. families with children increased by 12 percent in February after child tax credit payments under a federal Covid-19 relief plan expired, according to new data from Children’s HealthWatch, a nonpartisan group of health care workers and researchers.
Food insufficiency had fallen by 26 percent last year, when more than 36 million families received the payments, which stopped in December after Congress defeated Build Back Better legislation that would have made them permanent.
The expanded child tax credit, part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, gave qualifying families $250 to $300 per child each month.
“The fact that we saw a significant reduction in food insecurity really speaks to the fact that people were using this to afford basic needs,” said Allison Bovell-Ammon, the director of policy strategy at Children’s HealthWatch.
The organization also found wide disparities in who received the payments. Families without active bank accounts were less likely than those with active accounts to receive payments, and families in which the mother was an immigrant were less likely than those with U.S.-born moms to get the credit.
“Among the immigrant community, in particular, there’s a lot of fear around accessing government programs across the board,” Bovell-Ammon said recently. “There’s also a huge information gap, information potentially not being available in multiple languages and in communities, by trusted community members where people live.”
One of those affected by the cutoff is Kristen Olsen, who is raising the youngest of her three sons, George, as a single mother in West Virginia. At the grocery store, she buys fruits and vegetables only when they are on sale. Instead, she mostly buys rice, beans, potatoes and sardines, which she packs for lunch at work every day. Last winter, she went to a food pantry for the first time, and she is taking advantage of clothing giveaways in her neighborhood.
“I didn’t used to have to pinch pennies like this,” said Olsen, who received $300 a month in child tax credit payments. “We’ve struggled, but we’ve … always felt like somebody’s struggling more, somebody needs it more. But it got to the point where we had no food.”
The double whammy of losing the expanded child tax credit and having to pay more for rent, gas and utilities because of inflation left her searching for new ways to support her family.
In her home state, West Virginia, 93 percent of children qualified for the child tax credit.
Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia was the lone Democrat who did not support the Biden administration’s Build Back Better proposal, which would have made the extended child tax credit permanent, saying he considered it a disincentive to work. He also privately expressed concern that people would use the money to buy drugs.
Olsen, who is in recovery and works multiple jobs, said it hurt to hear that from a senator she has voted for.
“He’s just saying you’re not worth investing in when they’re not giving us this money,” she said. “Your children aren’t worth it.”
Children’s HealthWatch said it wants Congress and the Biden administration to address the disparities it found and make the expanded child tax credit permanent.
Lawmakers are considering options but do not agree on how the program should work. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and others say they want to renew the 2021 expanded child tax credit. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, is pushing for a version that is expected to include a work requirement.
Olsen said she has called Manchin’s office to ask him to support a monthly child tax credit. Although the extra money did not melt away all her financial worries, it eased the stress of opening a bill and wondering whether she would be able to pay it, she said.
“When I first got that $300 in my account, it gave me breathing room to be a better parent, to be a better mother, to enjoy my life a little bit,” she said.
She said that if the payments were reinstated, she would use the money to re-enroll George in jiujitsu classes and buy him new clothes, sneakers and books as he heads to preschool. She and other West Virginia families, she said, need the relief.
“It’s not just about the money in my bank account. It’s also about being heard and feeling heard,” Olsen said. “It would feel like I was heard, finally, like all of us were heard.”