For Sondra Jackson, an extra $250 a month means her granddaughter Shyloe has clean clothes to wear to school. The power stays on.
Jackson, 54, is the primary caregiver for the eight-year-old. They live with Jackson's adult son who works delivering food and their cat, Tonks, in Wheeling, West Virginia.
Getting her utilities shut off could cost them their home in public housing. And while Jackson earns a small income as a member of AmeriCorps, a federally funded program, sometimes the family's finances cut it really close — so close, they have to wait a week to buy laundry detergent.
That all changed for Jackson after Congress passed a child tax credit increase in March as part of the American Rescue Plan COVID-19 relief package. The legislation temporarily raised the maximum credit, made the lowest-income families eligible to receive it for the first time and offered monthly advance payments of $250 or $300 from July through December.
Jackson was able to buy new school clothes, catch up on bills and buy detergent.
"It's been a blessing at such a critical time," said Jackson.
But that funding might be taken away from Jackson and millions more if Democrats in Congress are unable to work out a $3.5 trillion budget deal that would bankroll the federal government through the next year— and a permanent extension to the child care credit until 2025.
Under the current extension, parents were granted a total of $3,000 for each child age 17 and under, and $3,600 for each child under age 6. Previously, the maximum was $2,000 when they parents their taxes and 17-year-olds were not eligible. President Joe Biden made it so that families could get boosted payments in advance as part of pandemic relief efforts.
"That’s a potential game-changer for those kids,’’ said Chuck Marr, senior director of federal tax policy for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C.
Congress voted Thursday to extend funding for the federal government through Dec. 3, avoiding a shutdown that would have begun at midnight. The legislation is headed to President Joe Biden for his signature.
There's no deal in sight, however, that would keep the monthly payments to American families in place past December.
“An investment in our kids and families is an investment in our economy. And, the sooner Congress understands that, the better off we’ll all be," said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, who has introduced and supported bills to expand the child tax credit.
Social welfare spending has been characterized as a Socialist grab bag by Republicans.
But experts predict continuing the expanded tax credit beyond 2021 would slash child poverty by 40%, according to a recent report by the Urban Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.
"We are on the precipice of solidifying a policy that will be one of the greatest poverty-busting opportunities we’ve had in decades," said Dorian Warren, co-president of Community Change Action, a national civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C.
USA TODAY asked Americans like Jackson what the child tax credit has meant to them — and what would happen if they lost it.
This is what they told us.
Health insurance for a newborn
When Phil Imobio, 30, was laid off from his network engineering job last September, he also lost his immigration status. And his health insurance. His wife, a U.S. citizen, was eight months pregnant.
The hospital had already let the couple know they'd have to pay $7,000 for the birth out of pocket. Rent for their apartment in Chicago was $1,600. Winter was around the corner, meaning they would be on the hook for a heating bill.
Their baby was born on Oct. 30.
Imobio moved to the United States from Nigeria on a university scholarship. Under his visa status, he had six months to find a job or be forced to leave. A prospective employer would have to sponsor his work visa — a process that costs thousands of dollars — while cash-strapped companies rode out the largest economic recession since the Great Depression.
No one called Imobio back from the dozens of jobs he applied for. He drove for Uber a couple times a week to bring home $80 each night, risking COVID-19 or getting caught for working without papers.
"It was such a tough time just to have to shoulder that thought of what was the next step or what was the next move," Imobio said.
He and his wife spent over $5,000 on immigration fees and securing a lawyer to straighten out his immigration status. His wife added Imobio to her insurance, forcing them to pay an extra $250 that used to be covered by his employer.
The family dug into their tiny savings and credit cards. But the baby delivery bill ended up in collections anyway.
When the first child tax credit deposit hit their bank account, the Imobios set up a payment plan with the hospital.
Losing it would mean falling behind again.
"We've known that we can count on that money to come in every month," said Imobio.
“I know there’s an end date”
With her $600 monthly child tax credit, Miaya Bennett, 31, said she could send either her 4-year old son or her 3-year-old daughter to preschool. She couldn’t afford to enroll both.
Bennett, and her husband, Thaddeus Benn, ultimately decided to send their son, because he was older. The credit helps to cover the $200 a week for tuition.
Bennett, who lives in Las Vegas, was laid off from her job as a medical dispatcher at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The family didn't have savings and her husband was also out of work.
"We went all the way through the pandemic with no income, just trying to pinch pennies together to make a dollar,’’ said Bennett.
She, her husband and children live with Bennett’s sister, and the extended family pulled together. Bennett briefly received unemployment benefits, and in August, her mother moved in to help look after Bennett’s kids as well as her two-year-old nephew.
Several months ago, Bennett’s husband got a job working as a supervisor for a mortgage company, and Bennett recently got her real estate license and is focusing on a business she has with her sister flipping homes. The tax credit continues to help pay for the food Bennett puts in her son’s lunch, as well as his school supplies and other bills.
“It’s not going to be there forever. I know there’s an end date on it and once that end date comes I have to figure out how am I going to afford my child’s school, to buy his lunches and clothes,” said Bennett. “My daughter turns four in 4 in July of next year (and starts school.) Where will I find the money for that?’’
The COVID-19 crisis isn't over
Every fall, seasonal work dries up for Gisella Collazo, a 43-year-old farmworker in Springfield, Massachusetts.
The Peruvian mother of two relies on her husband to keep up with the pile of bills.
But after her husband landed in the hospital earlier this year after contracting COVID-19, Collazo became the family's sole breadwinner. Expenses were tight. She used the child tax credit to pay utilities.
"It was very challenging," Collazo said. "This extra money helped get us through."
Collazo's husband hasn't fully recovered. After going back to work part-time, he had an accident and fractured his foot earlier this month.
Until he is able to return to work, Collazo said the $500 is keeping them afloat.
Without it, she fears not being able to make rent like many other families she knows in the Pioneer Valley.
"Muchas familias lo necesitan," Collazo said. Many families need the help.
She added, "the COVID-19 crisis isn't over."
'It all adds up'
When shuttered classrooms finally reopened this fall, Aqeela Muntaqim, 33, needed to buy her four children new clothing and backpacks.
The $1,100 in child tax credits she and her husband receive each month meant they didn’t have to stagger their purchases to stretch their budget.
"We had to purchase clothes for all of them and to pay for aftercare. It all adds up," said Muntaqim, who lives in Macomb, Michigan, and together with her husband earns $140,000 a year.
For Muntaqim, deputy director of the non-profit advocacy group Mothering Justice, and her husband, Anwaar Muntaqim, a boiler operator, the proposed extension of the expanded tax credit would give their family the chance to put money aside.
“Our kids are getting bigger and I’m pretty sure we’re going to need more space,’’ said Muntaqim, who yearns to buy a larger home.
For Sara Klawonn, an extra $1,200 a month means fresh vegetables instead of frozen greens.
Klawonn, a mother of eight in Viborg, South Dakota, has been receiving $1,200 a month in tax credits for her four youngest children who range in age from 6 to 14 years old.
“I can buy them lovely broccoli that they actually love roasted in the oven,’’ Klawonn said. “It costs more to get the really great raw food, especially in a state like South Dakota. We grow a huge garden every year but there’s only so much you can can, or freeze.’’
Klawonn, who works part-time as a worship leader and whose husband Kent works for a local cabinet maker and is a part-time minister, knows how to make do with a little.
“I know how to mix the dry milk with the regular milk to make two gallons out of one," she said, adding that the extra money from the tax credit has been a relief.
If the enhanced child tax credit were to be extended another four years, the money could cover extras her children want and love, like art supplies and dance lessons.
It would be like an insurance policy, she said, money you might not immediately use “but you’re so grateful that it’s there.’’
Back in West Virginia, Jackson said COVID-19 prevented the family from participating in many of their usual activities. Playing at the park. Live music. Being part of parades with floats.
Then she and Shyloe both contracted the virus in November before the vaccine was available. Ever since, they've stuck close to home.
After putting aside a few dollars from the tax credit here and there, Jackson bought Shyloe a rock-painting kit on Amazon. It cost $12.
"This has allowed me to bring her some joy," Jackson said.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Child tax credit: Families could lose extra help without budget deal