WASHINGTON — If all goes as planned, the Treasury Department will begin making a series of monthly payments in coming days to families with children, setting a milestone in social policy and intensifying a debate over whether to make the subsidies a permanent part of the American safety net.
With all but the most affluent families eligible to receive up to $300 a month per child, the United States will join many other rich countries that provide a guaranteed income for children, a goal that has long animated progressives. Experts estimate the payments will cut child poverty by nearly half, an achievement with no precedent.
But the program, created as part of the stimulus bill that Democrats passed over unified Republican opposition in March, expires in a year, and the rollout could help or hinder President Biden’s pledge to extend it.
Immediate challenges loom. The government is uncertain how to get the payments to millions of hard-to-reach families, a problem that could undermine its poverty-fighting goals. Opponents of the effort will be watching for delivery glitches, examples of waste or signs that the money erodes the desire of some parents to work.
While the government has increased many aid programs during the coronavirus pandemic, supporters say the payments from an expanded Child Tax Credit, at a one-year cost of about $105 billion, are unique in their potential to stabilize both poor and middle-class families.
“It’s the most transformative policy coming out of Washington since the days of F.D.R.,” said Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey. “America is dramatically behind its industrial peers in investing in our children. We have some of the highest child poverty rates, but even families that are not poor are struggling, as the cost of raising children goes higher and higher.”
Among America’s 74 million children, nearly nine in 10 will qualify for the new monthly payments — up to $250 a child, or $300 for those under six — which are scheduled to start on Thursday. Those payments, most of which will be sent to bank accounts through direct deposit, will total half of the year’s subsidy, with the rest to come as a tax refund next year.
Mr. Biden has proposed a four-year extension in a broader package he hopes to pass this fall, and congressional Democrats have vowed to make the program permanent. Like much of Mr. Biden’s agenda, the program’s fate may depend on whether Democrats can unite around the bigger package and advance it through the evenly divided Senate.
The unconditional payments — what critics call “welfare” — break with a quarter century of policy. Since President Bill Clinton signed a 1996 bill to “end welfare,” aid has gone almost entirely to parents who work. Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, recently wrote that the new payments, with “no work required,” would resurrect a “failed welfare system,” and provide “free money” for criminals and addicts.
But compared to past aid debates, opposition has so far been muted. A few conservatives support children’s subsidies, which might boost falling birthrates and allow more parents to raise children full-time. Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, has proposed a larger child benefit, though he would finance it by cutting other programs.
With Congress requiring payments to start just four months after the bill’s passage, the administration has scrambled to spread the word and assemble payment rosters.
Families that filed recent tax returns or received stimulus checks should get paid automatically. (Single parents with incomes up to $112,500 and married couples with incomes up to $150,000 are eligible for the full benefit.) But analysts say four to eight million low-income children may be missing from the lists, and drives are underway to get their parents to register online.
“Wherever you run into people — perfect strangers — just go on up and introduce yourself and tell them about the Child Tax Credit,” Vice President Kamala Harris said last month on what the White House called “Child Tax Credit Awareness Day.”
Among the needy, the program is eliciting a mixture of excitement, confusion and disbelief. Fresh EBT, a phone app for people who receive food stamps, found that 90 percent of its users knew of the benefit, but few understand how it works.
“Half say, ‘I’m really, really ready to get it,’’’ said Stacy Taylor, the head of policy and partnerships at Propel, the app’s creator. “The others are a mix of ‘I’m worried I haven’t taken the right steps’ or ‘I’m not sure I really believe it’s true.’”
Few places evoke need more than Lake Providence, La., a hamlet along the Mississippi River where roughly three-quarters of the children are poor, including those of Tammy Wilson, 50, a jobless nursing aide.
The $750 a month she should receive for three children will more than double a monthly income that consists only of food stamps and leaves her relying on a boyfriend. “I think it’s a great idea,” she said. “There’s no jobs here.”
While the money will help with rent, Ms. Wilson said, the biggest benefit would be the ability to send her children to activities like camps and school trips.
“Kids get to bullying, talking down on them — saying ‘Oh your mama don’t have money,’” she said. “They feel like it’s their fault.”
But in West Monroe, a 90-minute drive away, Levi Sullivan, another low-income parent, described the program as wasteful and counterproductive. Mr. Sullivan, a pipeline worker, has been jobless for more than a year but argued the payments would increase the national debt and reward indolence.
“I’m a Christian believer — I rely on God more than I rely on the government,” he said.
With four children, Mr. Sullivan, who has gotten by on unemployment insurance, food stamps, and odd jobs, could collect $1,150 a month, but he is so skeptical of the program he went online to defer the payments and collect a lump sum next year. Otherwise, he fears that if he finds work he may have to pay the money back.
“Government assistance is a form of slavery,” he said. “Some people do need it, but then again, there’s some people that all they’re doing is living off the system.”
Progressives have sought a children’s income floor for at least a century. “No one can doubt that an adequate allowance should be granted for a mother who has children to care for,” wrote the economist and future Illinois senator Paul H. Douglas in 1925 as children’s benefits spread in Europe.
Four decades later, the Ford Foundation sponsored a conference to promote the idea in the United States. The meeting’s organizer, Eveline M. Burns, lamented the “shocking extent of childhood poverty” but acknowledged strong political opposition to the payments.
While hostility to unconditional cash aid peaked in the 1990s, multiple forces revived interest in children’s subsidies. Brain science showed the lasting impact of the formative years. Stagnant incomes brought worries about child-rearing costs into the middle class. More recently, racial protests have encouraged a broader look at social inequity.
An existing program, the Child Tax Credit, did offer a children’s subsidy of up to $2,000 a child. But since it was only available to families with sufficient earnings, the poorest third of children failed to fully qualify. By removing that earnings requirement and raising the amount, Democrats temporarily converted a tax break into a children’s income guarantee.
Analysts at Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy say the new benefits will cut child poverty by 45 percent, a reduction about four times greater than ever achieved in a single year.
“Even if it only happens for a year, that’s a big deal,” said Irwin Garfinkel, a professor at the Columbia School of Social Work. “If it becomes permanent, it’s of equal importance to the Social Security Act — it’s that big.”
Opponents warn that by aiding families that do not work, the policy reverses decades of success. Child poverty had fallen to a record low before the pandemic (about 12 percent in 2019), a drop of more than a third since 1990s.
“I’m surprised there hasn’t been more pushback from other conservatives,” said Scott Winship of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, who argues that unconditional aid can cause the poor long-term harm by reducing the incentive to work and marry.
Getting the money to all eligible children may prove harder than it sounds. Some American children live with undocumented parents afraid to seek the aid. Others may live with relatives in unstable or shifting care.
Dozens of groups are trying to promote the program, including the Children’s Defense Fund, United Way and Common Sense Media, but many eligible families have already failed to collect stimulus checks, underscoring how difficult they are to reach. The legislation contained little money that could be used for outreach, leaving many groups trying to raise private donations to support their efforts.
The Rev. Starsky Wilson, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, praised the Biden administration for creating an online enrollment portal but warned, “we really need to be knocking on doors.”
Gene Sperling, the White House official overseeing the payments, said that even with some families hard to reach, deep cuts in poverty were assured.
“While we want to do everything possible to reach any missing children, the most dramatic impact on child poverty will happen automatically,” because the program will reach about 26 million children whose families are known but earned too little to fully benefit from the previous credit. “That will be huge.”
By delivering monthly payments, the program seeks to address the income swings that poor families frequently suffer. One unknown is how families will spend the money, with critics predicting waste and supporters saying parents know their children’s needs.
When Fresh EBT asked users about their spending plans, the answers differed from those about the stimulus checks. “We saw more responses specifically related to kids — school clothes, school supplies, a toddler bed,” Ms. Taylor said. “It tells me the framing of the benefit matters.”
There is evidence for that theory. When Britain renamed its “family allowance” a “child benefit” in the 1970s and paid mothers instead of fathers, families spent less on tobacco and men’s clothing and more on children’s clothing, pocket money, and toys.
“Calling something a child benefit frames the way families spend the money,” said Jane Waldfogel, a Columbia professor who studied the British program.
While the payments will greatly reduce poverty, most beneficiaries are not poor. Jennifer Werner and her husband had a household income of about $75,000 before she quit her job as a property manager in Las Vegas two years ago to care for her first child. Since then, she has used savings to extend her time as a stay-at-home mother.
Ms. Werner, 45, supports the one-year benefit but wants to see the results before deciding whether it should last. “When you have a child you realize they’re expensive — diapers, wipes, extra food,” she said. But she added “I don’t know where all that money’s coming from.”
She hopes the country can be fair both to taxpayers and to children whose parents work too hard to offer sufficient attention. “If the benefit helps parents nurture their kids, that would be a wonderful thing,” she said.