Since 2017, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet has pushed legislation meant to alter the child tax credit in a way that would significantly decrease childhood poverty.
Now, with a temporary expansion to the child tax credit passed in the latest COVID-19 relief bill, Bennet has an opportunity to make legislation that he has spent years crafting and advocating a reality.
“We do not have to accept massive childhood poverty as a feature of our society,” said Bennet, D-Colo., in an interview with The Durango Herald.
Part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, which was signed into law March 11, is a one-year expansion of the child tax credit. The expansion would make millions more families eligible to receive the credit by changing the required income level and extending it to people living in U.S. territories.
“Ninety percent of American kids are going to benefit from these changes,” Bennet said. “I hope that creates momentum to make it permanent.”
The expansion also increases the amount of money families can receive from $2,000 per child to $3,000 per child and $3,600 for children younger than 6. It will also change the nature of the credit by turning it into monthly, rather than yearly, payments.
In an op-ed piece he wrote for The Colorado Sun, Bennet said measures to expand and change the child tax credit are predicted to reduce childhood poverty by nearly 50% before the end of the year and help around 57,000 children in Colorado get out of poverty.
Childhood poverty is not unique to Colorado; it is a nationwide issue. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost 12 million children younger than 18 were in poverty in 2018. The poverty rate for children in the U.S. is around 16%, one of the highest in the industrialized world.
The issue of childhood poverty in the U.S. is near and dear to Bennet, not as a result of geography, but because of his previous experience as the superintendent of Denver Public Schools, he said.
“When I was in that job, I met a lot of parents who were working two and three jobs, and no matter what they did, they felt like they couldn’t get their kids out of poverty,” Bennet said. “When I left the school district, one of the things I reflected on was that the schools can’t do this work by themselves, and we need to create some better economic mobility in the country, and in our state, for that matter.”
Since the American Rescue Plan passed, Bennet and other Senate Democrats have urged President Joe Biden, as well as their peers in the U.S. Senate, to make the expansion on the child tax credit permanent.
On March 25, Bennet and U.S. Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Raphael Warnok, D-Ga., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, spoke on the Senate floor about the expansions to the child tax credit and the earned income tax credit, urging their fellow senators to vote to make the measures permanent.
“You cannot have a democracy if you don’t have an economy where everybody feels like they get ahead. It won’t work,” Bennet said on the Senate floor last month. “It’s never worked in human history and I think it would be unreasonable for us to expect it would work here.”
The day after, on March 26, Bennet and 40 other Senate Democrats signed a letter to Biden asking him to make the expansions of the child tax credit and the earned income tax credit permanent measures.
“I can’t think of anything more unfair than accepting childhood poverty as simply a natural outcome of our economy, or our society and allowing it to persist,” Bennet told the Herald.
Bennet has been traveling throughout Colorado, meeting people and talking to them about the expanded child tax credit, ensuring that they understand how it will affect them personally. He has heard almost exclusively positive feedback from people all over Colorado about the temporary measure, he said.
“We’ve made it so hard to be poor and to work in America,” Bennet said. “What this will allow people to do is, if the car breaks down, they’ll be able to fix it. If they can pay for a few hours of day care for a child, they can stay on the job.”
Bennet said some politicians are skeptical of the expansion, thinking it might encourage people to stop working. However, there is the possibility of some bipartisanship on making the expansion permanent, Bennet said, because U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, proposed a similar expansion of the child tax credit.
The current temporary expansions to the child tax credit will last through the end of 2021. If legislation to make the expansions permanent is not passed before the end of the year, the child tax credit will return to its usual measures.
“If we want to strengthen our democracy, I think giving people economic opportunity is an important part of that,” Bennet said. “Now, though, we have to make it permanent, because if we don’t, we will end up doubling poverty at the end of the year.”
Other than the partisan politics that might play into stalling passage of a permanent expansion of the child tax credit, Bennet said the biggest obstacle to passing a measure is a “failure of imagination in Washington.”
“I hope we won’t fail,” Bennet said. “And I don’t think we will.”
Grace George is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.