Child tax credit was the hand up many needed

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Guest Author

In December 2021, three sources told news outlets that Sen. Joe Manchin had postulated in private that West Virginia families would use the money they received from the Child Tax Credit (the final payment for which went out that same month) to buy drugs. His concerns — which he has publicly denied — might be why Manchin began insisting that the program, if it were to be continued, have a work requirement and maybe even an income cap.

The Brookings Institution released a study this month that broke down how families spent the extra cash from the CTC each month. Leah Hamilton, one of the study’s researchers, recently spoke with The Dominion Post about West Virginia’s results.

More than half (51.8%) of the study’s respondents said they spent the money on more nutritious food for their kids; 39% said they used it to buy better clothes for their kids; 43% said they paid down debt; and 20% said they banked it for a rainy day (or, more accurately, for emergencies). A heartbreaking 40% of respondents in West Virginia said they stopped pawning personal items to make ends meet while they received the CTC.

Nationally, according to the study, “70% paid routine household expenses like housing and utilities; 58% bought clothing or other essentials for their kids; 56% bought more food for the family; 49% set some money aside for emergencies; [and] 42% paid off debt.”

Did some adults receiving the child tax credit use that money for drugs and alcohol? This is humanity we’re talking about, so the answer is likely yes. But Machin’s “concerns” play to the old “welfare queen” stereotype that has made climbing out of poverty so much harder for so many.

What people like Manchin don’t seem to know — or don’t seem to remember — is just how expensive it is to be poor, or even to live paycheck to paycheck.

Terry Pratchett perfectly described the poor person paradox: You can’t afford to buy a nice pair of work shoes, ones that would last for years. So you buy a cheaper pair that fall apart in a few months and keep buying the cheap ones. By the end of the year, you’ve spent more money than if you bought the good but expensive shoes. But many people can’t afford the nice ones, because the upfront cost is too much.

Or you can’t afford regular doctor visits because the copay or the deductible is too high. So you ignore the aches and pains and signs of disease until it becomes a medical emergency, and now you owe an even bigger bill to the ER or the specialist who had to treat you.

These are just two of the myriad challenges people face. While lawmakers shudder at the specter of fictional welfare queens, they fail to realize that the people they serve aren’t asking for a handout — they are asking for a hand up. And for a while, the child tax credit was the hand up so many people desperately needed.

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Written by the editorial board of the Dominion Post in West Virginia.

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