New U.S. Child Tax Credit Is Big Step for Kids—Let’s Get It Right

In a few short weeks, child tax credit checks will arrive in the vast majority of parents’ bank accounts. It’s estimated that up to 90% of families with children will qualify. The $250 or $300 monthly check, depending upon the age of the children, may seem like a novelty to Americans, but it is routine business for many countries from Canada to South Korea

While a child allowance may seem unusual in our country, the fact that raising children in America is increasingly unaffordable is not a foreign concept. The rising costs associated with parenthood have contributed to a decline in America’s birthrate. The pandemic added greatly to the financial stress parents were already feeling and forced many to make impossible choices between caring for their children and earning enough money to feed them. This tax credit—along with other vital measures proposed in the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan to help families with children—is both necessary and overdue.

This is a monumental opportunity for American kids and families, and the new child tax credit initiative approaches the starting line with momentum. But its success cannot be taken for granted. Only a concerted and well-directed effort can garner the public support needed to ensure that such practices continue to benefit generations to come.

To get there, two things need to happen: 1) We need to spread the word far and wide about these initiatives and make sure people recognize how they have helped their own children and those of their family and friends; and 2) We need to bake in government and policymaker accountability as these policies are implemented to ensure they are effective. 

First, everyday Americans must understand the utility and importance of these allowances.

Other public sector initiatives have been weakened by a failure to educate the public—for example, the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Despite its enormous potential to change and improve lives, it was not clearly explained or promoted by its proponents. This failure allowed opponents to undermine the success of the program and organize a political base against it, instead of focusing on how to make it most effective. As people have gained an understanding, the program has seen support increase.

On the other hand, Americans clearly understand the benefits of programs like social security and individual retirement accounts. They’ve seen that social security payments, for example, reduced poverty among seniors by over two-thirds and allowed generations of elders to live with at least minimal financial security and dignity. There is widespread and bipartisan support, and eliminating social security is a nonstarter.

With focused efforts, we can make child tax credits as recognizable and popular as social security. We can do this by creating a clear messaging drumbeat about the intent and positive impact of child tax credits and other supports for children, parents, and communities. Regular surveys of parents, compelling anecdotes, and beat reporting on data as it becomes available should begin now. Embedding storytelling into the rollout of child allowances as well as other ways for everyday Americans to relate to the issue can tip the scales toward public understanding and, ultimately, public buy-in and ongoing political support.

Second, like with social security, we need to bake in government and policymaker accountability to ensure that these initiatives for children are as effective as they can be.

We should put in place a clear and consistent way of assessing these initiatives for kids, make adjustments as needed, and report progress to the public. We ought to hold ourselves accountable to meet two standards: Within two years, we should cut by half the number of children who live in poverty; and within five years (showing progress each year), we should reduce the racial disparities on key indicators of kids’ health and well-being by at least one-third.

We must track our progress from the get-go through a combination of government agencies’ monitoring and reporting out the data, use of child impact assessments on proposed policies as is done in other countries, and independent evaluations of results. We know how to do this because we use monitoring and course-correcting tools like these with other important U.S. public policy initiatives—most recently our efforts to vaccinate as many Americans as possible against COVID-19.

Child tax credits and other supportive policies for kids can be a forward-looking way to help generations of U.S. parents to fulfill their hopes and dreams for their children. Let’s not squander the chance.

We owe it to them—and to their kids—to get this right.