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- Temporarily Expanding Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit Would Deliver Effective Stimulus, Help Avert Poverty Spike
Temporarily Expanding Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit Would Deliver Effective Stimulus, Help Avert Poverty Spike
May 13, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a severe economic crisis whose fallout will likely persist for some time. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) forecasts that the unemployment rate will average 10.1 percent in 2021, or nearly three times its pre-crisis level, and still be at 9.5 percent at the end of the year. There is substantial risk that the poverty rate — and the hardship that goes with it — will rise dramatically.
Federal policymakers should enact stronger policies now to avoid a steep poverty spike, help people meet basic needs, and boost the economy. Alongside strengthened state fiscal relief, nutrition assistance, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid funding, the next fiscal stimulus package should include specific expansions of the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) that would deliver well-timed, high “bang-for-the-buck” economic stimulus to millions of low-income households when they file their taxes in early 2021.
The package should make the Child Tax Credit of $2,000 per child fully available in tax years 2020 and 2021 to the 27 million children in low-income families who currently receive a partial tax credit or no credit at all because their incomes are too low. Poor children are at heightened risk now, living in economically vulnerable families and facing closed schools and scarce resources. Measures like the Child Tax Credit reduce poverty and improve children’s long-term educational and health outcomes, research indicates. But the tax credit can and should do more, as is reflected in the call by a National Academy of Sciences expert panel to make an expanded child tax credit that’s fully available to the poorest children the centerpiece of a proposal to cut child poverty in half.
Making the Child Tax Credit fully available would lift more than 3 million people — including 2 million children — above the poverty line.Making the Child Tax Credit fully available would lift more than 3 million people — including 2 million children — above the poverty line. It would lift another 13.6 million poor people, including 6.8 million children, closer to the poverty line. And for more than 1 million of these people, including 770,000 children, the expansion would lift them out of deep poverty by raising their income above half of the poverty line. In addition, by increasing the purchasing power of very poor families, this would be highly effective economic stimulus, since these hard-pressed families will spend virtually all of any additional income they receive.
Ultimately, policymakers should make the Child Tax Credit fully available on a permanent basis. For now, they should do so for this year and next.
The next legislative package also should increase for tax years 2020 and 2021 the miniscule EITC for low-wage adults who aren’t raising children. This, too, would boost the economy, and it would help millions of people while encouraging and rewarding work. The federal tax code currently taxes about 5.8 million of these low-wage workers into or deeper into poverty, because the payroll and (in some cases) federal income taxes they pay exceed any EITC they receive. An obvious way to help avoid a bigger spike in poverty is to stop taxing people into poverty. The EITC expansion for these workers that is contained in the Economic Mobility Act, a measure the House Ways and Means Committee approved last year, would benefit 16 million working childless adults and reduce the number of them whom the federal tax code taxes into, or deeper into, poverty by 96 percent. That proposal would raise the maximum EITC for childless adults from roughly $530 to close to $1,500, raise the income limit for the credit from about $16,000 to about $21,000, and expand the age range of childless workers eligible for the credit from 25-64 to 19-65 (excluding full-time students aged 19-24).
Of note, the top occupations that would benefit from these Child Tax Credit and EITC expansions include home health aides, cashiers, and food preparation and serving occupations. One silver lining of this pandemic has been Americans’ growing appreciation of the essential role these workers and millions of others who work for low pay — and lack benefits that many other workers take for granted, such as paid sick days — play in keeping this economy running. They deserve better, and the policies outlined here would provide concrete, meaningful help. Consider two examples:
- A convenience store cashier works 35 hours a week and earns just above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, making $13,700, which is slightly above the poverty line for a single individual ($13,621 in 2020). She now pays nearly $1,200 in combined federal income and payroll taxes (counting just the employee share of the payroll tax) and receives a small EITC of $160. As a result, the tax code pushes her below the poverty line. Under the Economic Mobility Act’s EITC expansion, she would no longer be taxed into poverty.
- A mother with a 2-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son works part time cleaning at an assisted living complex earning $9,000 a year. Her family receives a Child Tax Credit of $975, or less than $500 per child. If the full $2,000-per-child credit were fully available to low-income families rather than only to those with higher income, she would receive a credit of $4,000, a gain of over $3,000.
Policymakers also should make a one-time change in the EITC’s and Child Tax Credit’s designs to make them more effective now as counter-cyclical measures. When the economy weakens, many single mothers with children who lose income or become unemployed face an additional hit because they lose part or all of their EITC and Child Tax Credit. To address this problem, policymakers should allow filers to use their income from either 2019 or 2020 when calculating their 2020 EITC and Child Tax Credit, as policymakers have done for families affected by various hurricanes and natural disasters in the past. This one-year measure would enable people whose income falls in 2020 to use their higher 2019 income to avoid a cut in their EITC and Child Tax Credit.
CBO Expects Economy to Remain Weak Through 2021
CBO’s latest economic and budget projections assume that while “concerns about the pandemic [will] diminish” later this year, “challenges in the economy and the labor market are expected to persist for some time.” CBO projects a 10.1 percent average unemployment rate for 2021, higher than in any year since the Great Depression. Moreover, unemployment will still be 9.5 percent at the end of 2021, according to CBO, or “about 6 percentage points higher than the rate in CBO’s economic projection produced in January 2020.” (See Figure 1.) CBO also projects that “real GDP at the end of 2021 would be 6.7 percent below what CBO projected for that quarter in its economic outlook produced in January 2020.” This projected deep economic weakness means that additional and aggressive fiscal policy measures will be needed for an extended period of time in order to strengthen demand in the economy.
CBO Finds Expanding EITC and Child Tax Credit Provides Effective Stimulus
Expansions of the Child Tax Credit and the EITC represent effective policies for stimulating a weak economy. They deliver high “bank-for-the-buck” stimulus because the money flows to lower-income people, who tend to spend rather than save what modest income they have in order to meet basic needs. During the Great Recession, the 2009 Recovery Act’s expansions of these and similar tax credits generated between 60 cents and $1.50 in economic activity per dollar of cost, CBO estimated — compared to zero to 40 cents per dollar for the Recovery Act’s corporate tax cuts mostly affecting cash flow, such as “expensing” (which allows firms to deduct the full cost of machinery and equipment purchases immediately; see Figure 2).
This comparison is particularly relevant today. The recently enacted Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act includes an expensing provision for retailers and restaurants but not EITC and Child Tax Credit expansions, despite that fact that such expansions would provide higher bang-for-the-buck economic stimulus. Moreover, the Trump Administration is reportedly preparing to ask Congress to include in the next package the extension of a similar expensing provision that was enacted as part of the 2017 tax law and is slated to expire at the end of 2022. A much better approach would be to focus on effective stimulus measures, including the Child Tax Credit and EITC expansions.
Making the Child Tax Credit Fully Available
Approximately 27 million children in low-income families do not receive the full $2,000-per-child Child Tax Credit because their parents lack earnings or have earnings that are too low. Children in families that have less than $2,500 in annual earnings are ineligible. The credit begins phasing in for a low-income parent at a rate of 15 cents in the tax credit for each dollar of earnings above $2,500, and the refundable amount is capped at $1,400 per child (compared to the full $2,000-per-child tax credit for eligible higher-income people). Because of this structure, a single mother with two children who works full time at the minimum wage and earns $14,500 a year receives $1,800, or $900 per child — much less than the $4,000 her family would receive if she had higher income.
Consider a mother with a 2-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son who works part-time in a convenience store, earning $9,000 a year. Her family receives a Child Tax Credit of $975, or less than $500 per child. If the $2,000-per-child credit were fully available to low-income families like hers, she would receive a credit of $4,000 — a gain of over $3,000. (See Figure 3.)
Some momentum is building in Congress to make the Child Tax Credit fully available. Multiple bills with wide co-sponsorship have been introduced to accomplish this. In addition, late in 2019, Senator Mitt Romney became the first Republican lawmaker to propose extending part of the Child Tax Credit to low-income families irrespective of whether they have earnings.
For Puerto Rico, Strengthening Tax Credits Would
Cut Poverty, Promote Work
Puerto Rico entered the pandemic following more than a decade of economic decline and several devastating natural disasters, exacerbated by unequal access to the U.S. safety net. Puerto Rico residents are ineligible for the federal EITC, and only families with three or more children can receive the Child Tax Credit.
Measures such as the Economic Mobility Act would provide a crucial supplement to Puerto Rico’s modest local EITC, helping the Commonwealth tackle its acute poverty rate (43 percent in 2018a) and chronically low labor-force participation.
Federal policymakers also should give Puerto Rico residents the same access to the Child Tax Credit as residents of the states, by extending the credit to families in the Commonwealth with one or two children, including those with the lowest incomes. Making the Child Tax Credit fully available to the lowest-income families, as discussed in this paper, would significantly help families in Puerto Rico.
Expanding Puerto Rico’s EITC and making the Child Tax Credit fully available in Puerto Rico would take an important step toward tackling child poverty on the island, which stood at an even higher 57 percent in 2018.b
a Census QuickFacts: Puerto Rico, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/PR
b Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Center, “Children in poverty (100 percent poverty) in Puerto Rico,” https://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/tables/43-children-in-poverty-100-percent-poverty?loc=53&loct=4#detailed/4/any/false/37,871,870,573,869,36,868,867,133,38/any/321,322
The current pandemic and the associated economic downturn make enacting such a proposal more urgent. Policymakers should do what they can to reduce the likelihood of a sharp spike in child poverty, which could undermine the future promise of a generation of children. As a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) expert committee recently concluded, “the weight of the causal evidence indicates that income poverty itself causes negative child outcomes, especially when it begins in early childhood and/or persists throughout a large share of a child’s life.”  Child poverty can harm children’s health, school performance, and long-term well-being.
Substantially reducing child poverty can hence provide long-term benefits for both children and society by lowering future medical spending and other poverty-related costs and increasing children’s earnings and contributions to the economy in adulthood, the NAS panel observed. One of the panel’s two proposals to cut child poverty in half had a “child allowance” as its centerpiece. A fully available child tax credit is a form of such an allowance.
Making the full $2,000 Child Tax Credit available to the lowest-income families, including those who lack earnings in the tax year in question, would reduce poverty markedly. Specifically, it would:
- Lift more than 3 million people — including 2 million children — above the poverty line;
- Reduce the child poverty rate by about one-fifth, from 13.7 percent to 10.9 percent;
- Lift 13.6 million poor people, including 6.8 million children, closer to the poverty line; and
- Lift more than 1 million people, including 770,000 children, out of deep poverty by raising their income above half of the poverty line. Making the Child Tax Credit fully available to children in low-income families would shrink the deep child poverty rate by almost a third.
A fully available Child Tax Credit would lift out of poverty 1 million Black, 1 million Latino, 850,000 non-Hispanic white, 120,000 Asian and Pacific Islander, and 70,000 Native American individuals, including children. It would be particularly beneficial for children of color; it would lift an estimated 710,000 Black children, 700,000 Latino children, 60,000 Asian and Pacific Islander children, and 41,000 Native American children out of poverty, and lift millions more children closer to the poverty line. The impacts on deep poverty would be even larger for Black and Latino children than for non-Hispanic white children.
Many of the families that would benefit from this measure (see Table 1) perform important work, often for low pay and few benefits. The current crisis has made it clear how essential their work is.
|Workers in Selected Occupations Who Would Benefit From Fully Available Child Tax Credit of $2,000 per Child|
|Occupation||Number of workers who would gain||Workers who would gain as a share of all in occupation|
|Nursing, psychiatric, and home health aides||355,000||16%|
|Personal and home care aides||246,000||15%|
|Janitors and building cleaners||244,000||10%|
|Child care workers||175,000||13%|
|Food preparation workers||166,000||15%|
|Miscellaneous agricultural workers, including animal breeders||147,000||15%|
|Hand packers and packagers||79,000||12%|
|Combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food||73,000||22%|
Providing a Stronger EITC for Low-Wage Childless Adults
The EITC is a pro-work success story: numerous studies have found that it encourages work, boosts incomes, and reduces poverty among families with children. Low-income adults not raising children, however, largely or entirely miss out on these benefits because their EITC is small or nonexistent.
This is an especially appropriate time to address that design flaw, given the examples we see every day of people doing essential jobs during the pandemic despite low pay — preparing food, providing in-home health services, and handling, packaging, or transporting goods, among other essential services. Expanding the EITC for childless adults would supplement the limited earnings of several million of these cashiers, home health aides, delivery people, and other people working in essential occupations. (See Table 2.)
|Childless Workers in Selected Occupations Who Would Benefit From Economic Mobility Act’s EITC Expansion for Such Workers|
|Occupation||Number of workers who would gain||Workers who would gain as a share of all in occupation|
|Laborers and hand freight, stock, and material movers||503,000||22%|
|Janitors and building cleaners||465,000||18%|
|Personal and home care aides||383,000||24%|
|Truck and delivery drivers||361,000||9%|
|Stock clerks and order fillers||359,000||23%|
|Nursing, psychiatric, and home health aides||344,000||15%|
|Food preparation workers||309,000||28%|
|Child care workers||278,000||21%|
|Hand packers and packagers||176,000||27%|
|Miscellaneous agricultural workers, including animal breeders||170,000||17%|
|Cleaners of vehicles and equipment||87,000||28%|
|First-line supervisors/managers of food preparation and serving workers||86,000||14%|
|Shipping, receiving, and traffic clerks||81,000||13%|
|Combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food||77,000||23%|
|Health diagnosing and treating practitioner support technicians||61,000||9%|
Moreover, policymakers need to take strong action to prevent the current sharp economic decline from causing poverty to spike dramatically, and one way to help do that would be to stop taxing people into — or deeper into — poverty. Currently, about 5.8 million workers not raising children are taxed into or deeper into poverty each year because their EITC is too small to offset their federal income and payroll taxes.
To address this problem and help avoid a poverty spike among this group, policymakers should, for the next two years, raise the maximum EITC for childless adults from roughly $530 to roughly $1,500 and raise the income limit to qualify for the childless workers’ EITC from about $16,000 to at least $21,000. They should also expand the age range of childless workers eligible for the credit from 25-64 to 19-66, making workers aged 19-24 who aren’t full-time students, as well as workers aged 65 or 66, eligible for the first time. These changes would benefit 16 million working childless adults across the country, ranging from 32,000 in Wyoming to 2 million in California.
Consider, for example, a 25-year-old single woman who works roughly 35 hours a week throughout the year as a cashier at a convenience store and earns just above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Her annual earnings of $13,700 are just above the poverty line of $13,621 for a single individual. But federal taxes push her into poverty:
- Some $1,048 — 7.65 percent of her earnings — is withheld from her paychecks for Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes.
- On the income tax side, she can claim a $12,400 standard deduction, which leaves her with $1,300 in taxable income. Since she is in the 10 percent tax bracket, she owes $130 in federal income tax.
- Thus, her combined federal income and payroll liability (before the EITC) is $1,178. (This counts the employee but not the employer share of her payroll taxes.) She is eligible today for a small EITC of $160. So, her net federal income and payroll tax liability is $1,018.
In other words, federal taxes drive this woman making poverty-level wages about $940 below the poverty line. (See Figure 4.) The EITC expansion in the Economic Mobility Act described here would increase her EITC to $1,148, raising her income after federal income and payroll taxes to $48 above the poverty line. She would no longer be taxed into poverty. Overall, the EITC expansion would slash the number of workers aged 19-65 (other than full-time students) taxed into, or deeper into, poverty by about 96 percent: from about 5.8 million down to roughly 259,000.
Improving the Tax Credits’ Effectiveness in the Recession
Policymakers also should consider tweaking the EITC’s design on a temporary basis to make it a more effective counter-cyclical program during the current downturn. When the economy weakens, many two-earner families lose income and newly qualify for the EITC, which helps stabilize their income and avoid an even larger drop in household consumption. For single mothers with children, in contrast, “the EITC acts as an income de-stabilizer” (emphasis added) during recessions, because job losses or other earnings reductions cause many of these mothers to lose part or all of their EITC. 
To address this problem, policymakers should allow filers to use their income from either 2019 or 2020 when calculating their 2020 EITC. And if policymakers do not make the Child Tax Credit fully available to children in low-income families regardless of the level of their parents’ earnings, families should have the same option with respect to the low-income component of the Child Tax Credit.
People whose incomes fall this year, making them newly eligible for the EITC during the downturn, could use their 2020 income, as under current law. But lower-income workers who lose a job or have their hours and earnings cut could use their 2019 income to avoid losing some or all of their EITC.
Consider two examples:
- A family of four whose income falls from $50,000 in 2019 to $35,000 in 2020 would qualify for an EITC of $2,257 in 2020. This family would use 2020 income when calculating its 2020 EITC, as under current law.
- But a single mother with two children whose earnings fall from $15,000 last year to just $5,000 this year would not only lose $10,000 in wages, but her 2020 EITC would fall from $5,920 to $2,010 if she used her 2020 income. Allowing her to use her 2019 income would eliminate that added income loss.
Providing this choice would be sound fiscal policy and provide important income insurance to families hurt by this deep downturn. And there is strong precedent for such a provision. Tax relief enacted in 2005 for victims of hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma allowed them to use their 2004 earned income to calculate their EITC and Additional Child Tax Credit on their 2005 return, in order to ensure that they did not receive a smaller credit if their earnings fell in 2005.
More recently, the CARES Act created an analogous relief mechanism for businesses. It not only allows businesses to deduct interest expenses equal to up to 50 percent of their adjusted taxable income (versus 30 percent previously), but also gives them the option of using their 2019 income to make this calculation. Because of the recession, many businesses will have much smaller taxable incomes in 2020 than 2019, so using their larger 2019 income will let them deduct more in interest expenses and therefore obtain larger tax refunds. Policymakers should extend this kind of option to hard-pressed working families as well.
Appendix: Boosting Incomes of Millions of Working People and Their Families,
Including Many on Front Lines
|APPENDIX TABLE 1|
|Children Under Age 17 Who Would Benefit From Fully Available Child Tax Credit of $2,000 per Child, by State|
|State||Estimated number of children|
|Dist. of Columbia||47,000|
|APPENDIX TABLE 2|
|Childless Workers Who Would Benefit from Economic Mobility Act’s EITC Expansion for Such Workers, by State|
|State||Estimated Number of Childless Workers Benefiting From EITC Expansion|
|Dist. of Columbia||31,400|
 This proposal would be unnecessary for the Child Tax Credit if it is made fully available, as proposed here.
 Phill Swagel, “CBO’s Current Projections of Output, Employment, and Interest Rates and a Preliminary Look at Federal Deficits for 2020 and 2021,” Congressional Budget Office, April 24, 2020, https://www.cbo.gov/publication/56335.
 Swagel, op. cit.
 “Estimated Impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act on Employment and Economic Output From April 2010 Through June 2010,” Congressional Budget Office, August 2010, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/111th-congress-2009-2010/reports/08-24-arra.pdf
 Chuck Marr, “When Helping Retailers, Don’t Forget Their Workers,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, March 20, 2020, https://www.cbpp.org/blog/when-helping-retailers-dont-forget-their-workers
 Erica Werner, Seung Min Kim, Josh Dawsey and Jeff Stein, “Trump and Congress spar over next coronavirus economic package as CBO paints grim picture of what’s to come,” The Washington Post, April 24, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/us-policy/2020/04/24/trump-cbo-congress-coronavirus/
 American Family Act, H.R. 1560/S. 690, https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/690/text, and the Working Families Tax Relief Act, S. 1138/H.R. 3157, https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/1138/text.
 Senator Mitt Romney, “Romney, Bennet Offer Path to Bipartisan Compromise on Refundable Credits, Business Tax Fixes,” December 15, 2019, https://www.romney.senate.gov/romney-bennet-offer-path-bipartisan-compromise-refundable-credits-business-tax-fixes.
 Committee on Building an Agenda to Reduce the Number of Children in Poverty by Half in 10 Years, “A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty,” National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2019, https://www.nap.edu/read/25246.
 The NAS “Universal Supports and Work Package” was estimated to cut child poverty in half and included a $2,700-per-child allowance, as well as other measures.
 Our poverty-reduction impacts are based on Census data for 2018 and use the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which most analysts view as more accurate than the official poverty measure because it counts major non-cash and tax-based assistance, including refundable tax credits. Impacts would very likely be still larger in the weakened economies of 2020 and 2021.
 The Economic Mobility Act raises the eligibility age to 65. We recommend raising it to 66 so the EITC is available until workers reach Social Security’s full retirement age.
 Bitler, Hoynes, and Kuka, p. 25.