NM families struggling without child care tax credit

Mar. 6—For South Valley resident Dayana Muñoz, the end of expanded child tax credit payments in January capped a brief period of financial stability and reignited all-too-familiar fears of how to cover basic living expenses.

Between July and December, Dayana and her husband Daniel received $300 a month for each of their three young children under an ambitious plan to reduce childhood poverty rates.

And it was working, New Mexico families say. The payments, part of Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue package last year, were a godsend for those already living on the margins of a pandemic-stressed economy.

Dayana, 27, was used to juggling expenses because of her husband's inconsistent employment during the pandemic — first as a roofer, and lately as a bathroom remodeler and landscaper. The family's finances were augmented by Dayana's father living with them and sharing the rent. When he moved out, the CTC payments bridged the gap. But when the expanded CTC payments stopped in January — after President Joe Biden's Build Back Better stalled in the sharply divided Congress — the Muñoz family could no longer afford the $1,100 monthly rent on a home with ample room for a growing family.

In January, they moved into a cramped trailer on Lucia Avenue inside an enclosed yard full of industrial equipment. Dayana is still figuring out what the family can afford to do without. No more goodies on the grocery list. Just the basics, and Dayana says she buys smaller quantities of food now.

The payments "allowed us to do more things for our kids, and we used the money to pay the rent and bills," she said in Spanish. "Now that the checks are no longer arriving, things are difficult for us. My husband isn't working full-time right now and I can't work because the cost of child care is so high. It frustrates me that I can't help my husband in the way I would like, so I was very grateful to receive the credit. I would like this benefit to continue going forward."

So would Biden and New Mexico's Democratic representatives in Congress. The president called for a permanent expansion of the CTC in his State of the Union address.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and one of the expanded child tax credit's strongest advocates, said in a Feb. 23 statement to the Associated Press that nearly all the children in his state benefited from the credit and letting it expire was "a moral failure."

Columbia University researchers said that, in the United States, 3.7 million more children fell into poverty, with the monthly child poverty rate climbing to 17% in January, from 12.1% one month earlier.

Without the extension of the enhanced CTC, an estimated 9.9 million children could potentially fall back into poverty, according to an analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

To Heinrich's point, the CBPP calculates 454,000 New Mexican children would benefit from the Child Tax Credit Expansion, with 32,000 children being lifted above the poverty line.

Child poverty rates are highest among Hispanic children, according to a July 2021 report from the Urban Institute. Absent the CTC expansion, the poverty rate among Hispanic children is 10 percentage points higher than overall child poverty. After the expansion, the poverty rate for Hispanic children was only 6.6 percentage points higher.

Biden's COVID-19 rescue package reshaped the existing child tax credit program, greatly expanding the pool of eligible families. It sought to cut nationwide child poverty in half. Importantly, the money was delivered in monthly installments as an advance on a fully refundable tax credit, putting money directly into the pockets of the nation's parents to spend as they saw fit — on rent, groceries, utilities or child care.

More than 100,000 New Mexico families in Rep. Melanie Stansbury's 1st Congressional District have been affected by the halt to the payments.

Stansbury, anxious for the U.S. Senate to extend the payments, arranged in January for young Spanish-speaking mothers to share how they've "used the supplemental income to help support their kids and their families."

Dayana Muñoz was part of that Zoom press conference. So was 26-year-old Jennifer Guereca. Speaking from her home in Hobbs, Guereca described the vice-like pressure the pandemic was putting on her ability to work as a restaurant server.

The CTC payments helped remove her from an untenable situation in which restaurants were cutting workers' hours because restaurant patronage was down due to pandemic stressors. Fewer patrons means fewer tips, but fewer workers per shift means a heavier workload. Her income could "barely cover rent, much less child care" for three young children.

Since the onset of the pandemic, her husband hasn't had steady work. The CTC payments made it easier to save, meet the basic needs of the home, and allowed Guereca to pursue studies with the goal of becoming a dental assistant.

Without a secure income for her family, dreams of a career and home ownership are currently out of reach.

For all the whiplash the CTC has caused, Dayana Muñoz remains grateful the payments lasted as long as they did.

The idea that the federal government provided this kind of support, even if only temporarily, led her to investigate what other services are available for low-income families.

Since arriving in Albuquerque three years ago, the Chihuahua, Mexico, native has started taking classes at Catholic Charities to complete a GED and learn English. She attends in the evenings so her husband can watch the children.

She has enrolled her children in early childhood education programs.

She is also part of a young parent cohort at Partnership for Community Action, which encourages participants to develop a plan for self-improvement.

Being part of that group inspired her to share her story as an example of an immigrant who embraces self-advocacy. PCA has "given me confidence, shown me how to develop myself and taught me not to live in fear," she said.

Whether the CTC payments are authorized permanently — the program's future is murky at best — Dayana Muñoz plans to "open doors" for herself and her family wherever she can.

That's a goal much easier to reach without worrying about how to put food on the table.

We All Live Here is an opinion column focused on giving voice to underrepresented communities in New Mexico. Contact Assistant Editorial Page Editor/Reader Engagement Director Andy Smith at 823-3813, asmith@abqjournal.com.