Months into lockdown, Maggie Wiggin noticed that her 7-year-old son had become depressed. “Lockdown was a nightmare, I think, for a lot of special-needs kids. Just an incredibly difficult time,” she said, explaining that her son has autism. “And then he started getting sick.” His face began to swell, a sign of edema; his kidneys weren’t working. He spent time in the hospital, took what Wiggin describes as “unpleasant medicines,” and asked his parents if he was going to be okay. The trauma built up over time, and Wiggin, desperate to help him, was pleased when she discovered an effective therapy for her son called Floortime, for which a practitioner came into her home to work directly with her son. There was just one problem: Insurance wouldn’t cover it. The family, which includes her 4-year-old daughter, began to sink into credit-card debt. They felt that if they had a choice “between him being perpetually unhappy, and being in credit-card debt, that was an easy choice: to pay,” she said.
Then July 15 arrived and, with it, relief: Wiggin received $550 that Thursday morning, thanks to the expanded child tax credit. Wiggin said she had been checking for days in case the money had arrived. “Just to see if maybe it had come early. Then I opened up my bank account yesterday morning, and I got the biggest smile on my face,” she said. She immediately paid down her credit-card debt. Insurance still won’t cover her son’s therapy, but now it’s easier to afford. “I feel like there’s very few good news stories, and this is one,” she said.
For families like Maggie’s, the child tax credit expanded by President Biden and Democrats in Congress is both transformative social policy and rare good news after a year of incredible hardships. Families are to receive up to $300 per child under age 6 and $250 per child under age 18 every month through the end of the year. (The full credit is available only to couples who earn less than $150,000 and file taxes jointly.) Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy has estimated that the tax credit, along with other poverty-reduction policies included in the American Rescue Plan, “could lift 5 million children out of poverty, cutting child poverty in half in the U.S.,” NPR reports. The policy breathes dramatic, if temporary, life into a welfare state sapped by decades of austerity-minded reforms. In its breadth, it also reveals the extent to which precarity has afflicted middle-class and impoverished households alike.
In Los Angeles, Stuart Wood is thinking about taking his kids on a vacation. “Six hundred bucks for us is huge,” he said. The Biden administration’s combination of the expanded child tax credit and the pausing of student-loan payments “felt akin to a life-changing amount of money,” he added. Both Wood and his wife work for nonprofits, and their middle-class salaries don’t go far in a city as expensive as L.A. “Things are just normally very tight,” he explained. “It’s not going to go directly toward meeting like a basic need, but it is going to empower us to do something that we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. And the mental-health element of that is no small thing for us.”
Other families say the money will cover basic expenses. Gwendolyn, who told Intelligencer that she is a trans mother of two and asked to be referred to by her first name only, said that she’s unemployed because of the pandemic. Even before the pandemic, when she and her wife both worked, “making ends meet was a real struggle.” The couple had to declare bankruptcy after they fell behind on their mortgage payments. “If we get the CTC or the Biden Bucks around the same time every month, that will cover two payments for two different medical debts that we have, and that also covers the trustee payment for our bankruptcy,” she said. There’s an additional benefit to the payment, she continued: “It’s actually facilitated me getting a little bit of transition-related treatment as well that really helped one of the big areas that I have trouble with.”
Alan Good, who has two children, said that he and his kids had a slight disagreement over how to use their new funds. “When I heard about the child tax credit, I wanted to set it aside in savings accounts for the kids for their college. My wife wanted to use it for groceries. Of course, the kids thought they should just get to buy a ton of Legos,” said Good. Although the payment would certainly buy a lot of Legos, it’s probably going toward medical bills instead, he said. His oldest son had a seizure earlier this year. “We probably haven’t received all the bills yet, but so far, between the two-block ambulance ride and the short ER stay, we’re close to $1,500 in bills,” he said. “We’re finally pretty stable financially, but a few years ago something like this would have been devastating — like, beyond the horror of the event, the stress of how we were going to pay for any of this would have been awful. So I don’t even know how long these payments are going to last, but it looks like the first three months’ worth are earmarked for paying these bills.”
For Lily, who also asked that Intelligencer refer to her by her first name only, the payment meant she could run out to Costco for a big box of diapers for her infant son. Though she works full-time, she said she lives paycheck to paycheck and run an OnlyFans account on the side to help make ends meet. For once, she said, “my bank account wasn’t almost empty. It was a relief.” She had heard that people would get checks in the mail. “I was definitely skeptical when I checked my account and surprised it was there,” she said. She’d like the tax credit to become permanent. “That would be nice,” she said.
The future of the child tax credit depends largely on the whims of Congress. But Wiggin hopes that everyone understands just how crucial the policy is for families. “A lot of people are like, Well, I don’t have kids,” she said. “Whereas for me, it’s like, I have kids; I don’t have a mortgage. So your mortgage tax credit doesn’t have anything in it for me. But that’s okay, because I know it does a lot for you. This does a lot for me.”
This piece has been updated to correct Stuart Wood’s name.