(Podcast) Wyden: The Child Tax Credit is Social Security for kids

December 8, 2022

The strengthening of the federal Child Tax Credit in 2021 caused child poverty to plummet. Unfortunately, those changes were temporary, and now millions of kids across the country are falling back into poverty, due to congressional action.

In this episode of Policy for the People, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden talks about his efforts to bring back the enhanced Child Tax Credit before the year ends – before a new Congress takes its seat in January.

Our focus on kids continues in our second segment. Ivy Major-McDowall, Policy and Advocacy Director at Our Children Oregon, discusses what the data says about the well-being of Oregon’s children.

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We make this transcript available for your convenience and to increase the accessibility of our content. The transcript was generated by software and was reviewed manually, so we cannot guarantee that it is a perfect transcription. If you are able to, we encourage you to listen to the recording.

Juan Carlos Ordóñez (host): Yes, we can end child poverty if we choose to. That was made crystal clear by something that Congress did during the pandemic: strengthening the Child Tax Credit. In 2021, Congress improved the Child Tax Credit in several ways. It increased the amount of the credit. It sent families a portion of the credit every month, making it easier for struggling families to cover basic necessities. And crucially, it made the tax credit available to the lowest-paid families.

These changes had an immediate impact. In the blink of an eye, millions of children across the country were pulled out of poverty. Child poverty was cut nearly in half, the biggest drop on record. But this remarkable progress is at risk. The improvements Congress made to the Child Tax Credit were temporary, in effect only during 2021. And over the course of this year, Congress has yet to put those improvements back in place.

Today on Policy for the People, we talk with Oregon Senator Ron Wyden about his efforts to bring back the enhanced Child Tax Credit before the year ends — before a new Congress takes its seat in January. Our focus on kids continues in our second segment. Ivy Major McDowell, Policy and Advocacy director at Our Children Oregon, discusses what the data says about the well-being of Oregon's children.

Stay tuned.

Juan Carlos: Senator Wyden, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Senator Ron Wyden: Thank you for having me. Been looking forward to it.

Juan Carlos: Well, I want to start with a statement you made on the Senate floor about a year ago. You referred to the Child Tax Credit as Social Security for kids. Can you talk to us about the importance of the Child Tax Credit?

Senator Wyden: It is literally a lifeline for thousands and thousands of families. We saw what it did, for example, in reducing poverty. Food insecurity among families dropped by about 25% after the Child Tax Credit payments began. Child poverty cut in half. And it just seems to me — my background, as I think those in the state know, was working with the elderly, and I saw that Social Security was the lifeline. The Child Tax Credit is Social Security for kids in that it provides the same kind of financial support to allow those young people to prosper.

For example, right now, there is discussion in the Senate about the end of the year tax package, and it is unclear how it will play out. But the business community wants to have the research and development tax credit fixed. And this was part of the Republican's very flawed 2017 tax bill, where they were offering so many handouts to the most affluent. They didn't have any way to pay for it. So they basically wrecked the research and development tax credit, which is important for innovation.

I've said, I think that's an important benefit for Oregon and the country. The Child Tax Credit is also an important benefit for our country. And in fact, I've told businesses you should be with us in supporting the Child Tax Credit because the Child Tax Credit gives young people a chance to grow up and be healthy and be workers for all of you.

So let's benefit kids. Let's benefit research and innovation. Let's benefit the country. And a key part of that is once again putting in place a robust Child Tax Credit. We don't know exactly how the discussions are going fare. In fact, some say the Republicans may not be interested in a tax package at all. But as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, with jurisdiction over the Child Tax Credit, I'm going to go to the mat for this program.

I've seen what an enormous benefit it has brought to Oregonians, and I will champion it every step of the way, as chairman of the committee that has authority over it.

Juan Carlos: So you referenced the changes that were made last year to the federal Child Tax Credit. They were made as part of the last big federal pandemic package. And there were a number of changes that were made to the credit, including making it available to the lowest-income families so that they could receive the full amount of the credit. But those changes were temporary and those improvements have expired. I'm wondering, what have you heard from Oregon families in terms of what that loss of extra cash has meant to them?

Senator Wyden: It has had an enormous effect on them and not in a positive way. Families relied on those payments not to pay for luxuries, but to pay for essentials like rent and groceries and heat and clothing for their children. So the program was a lifeline. I went to the floor of the United States Senate twice in an effort to extend the Child Tax Credit. Republicans objected both times. And as we approach these end-of-the-year legislative discussions in Congress, when Republicans say we ought to extend the tax credit for research and development to promote innovation, I'm going to say we also should encourage healthy practices with kids. A lot of it revolves around having funds for groceries and clothing and a warm place to rest their head.

Juan Carlos: So you mentioned already the huge impact that it had in reducing poverty, those improvements to the Child Tax Credit. I'm wondering, why Congress hasn't been able to reinstate it, reinstate those improvements and put into place what was really a very effective policy?

Senator Wyden: You're being way too logical. You assume, setting aside the reference to the Congress, you assume that members really pay as much attention to kids as they do to the powerful interests. And regrettably, we find that powerful interests can get lots of attention again and again. And kids and those who are vulnerable often get short shrift. So what we're really saying is we're going to get as much as we possibly can for our children.

And for example, I've always felt very strongly about full refundability under this tax credit, because this is, again, part of this idea of a lifeline and almost a Social Security like concept.

Juan Carlos: So you mentioned the efforts to by some in the business community to for significant corporate tax breaks as part of this end of year tax package. Some of your colleagues have said that they should there should be no corporate tax breaks unless the Child Tax Credit is extended to cover kids with the lowest incomes. And maybe you've already hinted at this, but do you agree with that view?

Senator Wyden: I feel very strongly that both need to be done and both complement each other. You know, I have town hall meetings in every county in Oregon, many in the valley, something like 1,025. And as I have gone around the state, I've said to businesses, having the Child Tax Credit helps you because it gives your future workers a chance to get a good start, a healthy start.

It makes it more likely that your number one need will get met. And all the businesses in Oregon constantly come in. They say, we've got to find more trained, educated workers. Ron, help us with that. The Child Tax Credit does that. I believe very strongly that these two policies complement each other. And as chairman of the Finance Committee, I'm going to the mat to say that they're very much linked.

Juan Carlos: And what have those business leaders said back to you when you’ve stressed the importance of the Child Tax Credit?

Senator Wyden: They have all we said, well, we'll write a letter or something like that, indicating we're interested and supportive of the idea. I'm telling them they need to go to the mat. They need to understand these two policies go hand-in-hand. And I'm increasingly getting a good reception. And particularly what I have found after the election, you know, those on the far right, they pretty much had a bare cupboard. They didn't have any ideas. Now, when I've been talking to them since the election and saying Child Tax Credit and the research and development tax credit for innovation go hand-in-hand, I'm getting that getting a good response.

Juan Carlos: So are you hopeful that at the end of the day, you and your colleagues can ensure that kids are prioritized over corporate tax breaks.

Senator Wyden: We’ll know a bit more in the next day or so because the leadership of the Congress is going down to the White House to have some discussions. And my sense is Republicans are still reeling from the extraordinary loss they got at the polls. You know, Oregonians this past election said no to unhinged extremism and they said yes to common sense, practical ideas like our effort to hold down the cost of prescription drugs, our efforts to help children with approaches like the Child Tax Credit. And the Republicans are going to be wrestling with this follow up to the election over the next few weeks. And I'm trying to say, look, here's something that is good policy. Happens to be, in my view, good government. And I'm going to push it at every step.

Juan Carlos: Beyond the enhanced Child Tax Credit, what do you think, what else should we be doing to improve the lives of Oregon families and families across the country? What kind of investments do you think are really the most important?

Senator Wyden: I certainly believe that when it comes to this question of investment, you know, the issue is really, are you going to put some tax fairness in the budget? And what I hear, whether it's at a grocery store in Oregon or a town hall, I hear from Oregonians who always say, you know, look, somehow the billionaires can go for years on end without paying any taxes.

And let's say, because we want everybody to be successful, they should have to pay a fair share. And if nurses and firefighters pay taxes with every paycheck, the billionaires shouldn't get special treatment and get to pay taxes when they choose or in some cases, avoid paying any tax at all. So apropos of your question, that's how I would pay, for example, improvements in housing and shelter. I’ve advocated expansion in what's called the low income housing tax credit (LIHTC). When we're talking about housing and talking about the Child Tax Credit, where we're talking about expanded assistance to schools for vulnerable youngsters. Juan Carlos, this is about priorities. It's about choices. And my choice has not been standing up, as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, for somebody who was born on third base and thought they hit a triple. My priority has been to say that our country, at its best, gives everybody in America the chance to get ahead.

And we've been talking about two central priorities. I would add, mental health coverage, you know, as well. So whether it be mental health, whether it be low-income housing, whether it be the Child Tax Credit — those are the kinds of priorities I have to address the needs of vulnerable communities. And we ought to generate the revenue to pay for those concerns in a fair way. And I've advanced ideas with respect to billionaires paying a fair share to do it.

Juan Carlos: Let me finish by asking, is there a message that you have for Oregonians who are hoping to see a return of the enhanced Child Tax Credit, as well as more investments in the well-being of our people?

Senator Wyden: The perfect way to wrap up. Yes. I learned when I was director of the Oregon Gray Panthers Citizens Group that political change doesn't so often start in a government building somewhere, in the Congress or even in Salem or a city building, and then trickle down. It's almost always grassroots up. And so I would really encourage those in the community who care about the Child Tax Credit, care about housing care, care about mental health — these kinds of priorities that are important for families — make sure that you buttonhole your elected officials at every level: federal, state and local. Because political change is not trickle down. It's really grassroots up. And the Oregon Center for Public Policy has been doing good work on these issues for years. We've worked closely with you. I saw the very good op- ed that the center published here a few days ago.

And I think, you know, we couple reform, for example, like saying billionaires should pay their fair share and zero in on making sure that revenue can be used for Child Tax Credit, for housing and for mental health and other kinds of priorities. That gives everybody, everybody in Oregon the chance to get ahead and our state will be better and stronger for it.

Juan Carlos: Well, Senator Wyden, thank you very much.

Senator Wyden: Let's do it again. Appreciate the good work the Center is is doing. And look forward to having a chance to continue this discussion at home.

Juan Carlos: That was Oregon Senator Ron Wyden discussing the importance of the Child Tax Credit and his efforts to bring back a stronger version of the credit in an end-of-year tax package. The need for a stronger Child Tax Credit is evident when looking at the economic challenges that kids face. I discussed the well-being of Oregon's children with Ivy Major-MacDowell, policy and advocacy director at Our Children, Oregon.

Ivy, welcome to the show.

Ivy Major-MacDowell: Thanks for having me.

Juan Carlos: Our Children Oregon, in partnership with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, released the 2022 Kids Count data book not long ago. And the data book takes a deep dive into the well-being of children nationally as well as at the state level. Can you share with us the main takeaways from this report?

Ivy: Yeah, definitely. Also, a little bit of context to Our Children Oregon: we help to provide Oregon’s Kid Count Data Cards, and so we collect ourselves, state and county-by-county data. And both our state and national data show that children and youth are in the midst of a mental health crisis. Young people in Oregon and nationwide are struggling with anxiety and depression at unprecedented levels.

And also, our data shines some light on where children are not getting the resources that they need. For example, and specifically, children of color, children who are gender diverse and also those living in rural areas.

Juan Carlos: So we’re going to dive deeper into some of these findings, but before we do that, how does Oregon compare to other states in terms of the overall child well-being?

Ivy: So this year, Oregon ranked 26 in overall child well-being. So right in the middle.

Juan Carlos: Were there any bright spots in the data, areas where Oregon is doing well in terms of child well-being?

Ivy: I would say that even though Oregon does rank 26th in overall child well-being, we're actually in the top of the nation when it comes to health and family and community. So Oregon, actually, we ranked 12th in the nation in health. So that's, for example, the great progress that we've made with Cover All Kids, which has been a big legislative win.

And we see in data from 2020 that 96% of Oregon kids have access to health insurance. And also, Oregon ranked first in the nation with the lowest percentage of low birth weight babies. But although a cause for some celebration, we can see also that, still, Black children are nearly twice as likely to be born at low birth weights compared to their white peers. So still highlighting that racial inequities persist even in our health categories.

Juan Carlos: Even though compared to many other states health-wise we're doing better, while acknowledging the racial disparities, the concern about mental health really stood out in the data. I’m wondering if you can say more about the problem and what's driving this crisis of youth mental health?

Ivy: Mental health is for sure the number one concern for parents, teachers, youth, just because of the social isolation that we saw during the pandemic. And we know children had gone through significant changes in learning and socialization as a result. The national report itself showed that between 2016 and 2020, children reported an increase in anxiety and depression by 26%.

So that's 1.5 million more children with anxiety and depression. And even in Oregon, we see that that is even higher. So in 2020, we saw that 16% of children had anxiety and depression, and that's an increase of 40% from 2016.

Juan Carlos: And I wonder if there are causes beyond just the isolation of the pandemic that are impacting the mental health of our children. And I'm specifically wondering about the economic conditions of families.

Ivy: When we see that also the overall basic needs of children are not being met — they're not getting the food that they need at the table, access to stable housing and also their own caregivers and parents don't have a steady income — that, of course, has an impact on children's mental health. And I think also, and we did a recent report as well on climate and sustainability, we know that climate change and that existential threat to our future, but also the impacts it's having now, is impacting children and youth and how they feel about themselves and their future.

Juan Carlos: We already started touching into the question of economic well-being, but I'm wondering if you can dive a little bit deeper in terms of what the findings of the report were when it comes to the economic well-being of Oregon's children.

Ivy: Yeah. So in Oregon, we actually saw that in several of the economic well-being data indicators, that we've seen improvements in small ways. But at least one of the data sets was looking at children in poverty. That had actually decreased overlooking ten years from 21% to 15%. And also more parents and caregivers had reported having steadier employments.

And yes, those are some ways that we've gotten better or made some incremental gains for in our economic well-being category. But still, in comparison to the rest of the nation, Oregon continues to rank 30th. So the bottom half of states when it comes to economic well-being, which I think shows where we're still falling short in building and fostering systems of care and economic stability for children and families and ensuring that they have the resources they need.

Juan Carlos: And it's interesting, because this covers what was basically the recovery period after the the Great Recession of the 2008 and 2009. So it would make sense that you would see improvements in poverty rates during this long period. I'm wondering where there differences by race and ethnicity when it comes to economic well-being of children. You already alluded to racial disparities, but I wonder if you can specifically talk to the economic indicators.

Ivy: Black, LatinX, Native American, Pacific Islander children consistently fall under state averages for our wellness metrics, especially in education. But we also see that these children have experienced more abuse. Black and Native American and Pacific Islander students disproportionally lack stable housing. We know Black and Native American and Pacific Islander families experience hunger at twice the rate of white Oregonians.

Pre-pandemic, this data was collected more between 2018 and 2020. The pandemic, COVID 19, disrupted so much of data collection and accuracy. And so we're very curious for our next year what the data shows for 2022.

Juan Carlos: And are there differences by geography, differences between children in urban and rural areas that you see in the data?

Ivy: Yeah. So I would like to at least point to childcare. Childcare has been in crisis before COVID 19 and it has only been further exacerbated. And we know that definitely rural counties remain significantly underserved, and do not have enough childcare slots. But also that by being, childcare deserts is what we call that. Basically, just the number of kids that are living in these areas, there's just not enough childcare providers to help meet those needs. As well as also just childcare has become more in-demand and more costly, which only hurts and further exacerbates the pervasive racial and regional disparities both in access and affordability.

Juan Carlos: So we know that the economic challenges facing Oregon's children are not an accident. They are the result of public policy choices. So let's focus on what we can do from a policy perspective to improve the well-being of children. And I want to begin by focusing on what's happening at the federal level. Earlier in the show, we heard from Oregon Senator Ron Wyden speak about the federal Child Tax Credit. And I'm wondering, from your perspective, how important is it for Congress to strengthen the Child Tax Credit?

Ivy: I think it can't be overstated, the impacts of the Child Tax Credit. We know that the Child Tax Credit alone was responsible for nearly cutting national child poverty in half and lifting 3 million children, including 1 million children under six, above the poverty line. The progress that has been made with this Child Tax Credit expansion is likely to be undone, and we may see child poverty rates climb back up.

And we know that growing up in poverty, and the affects of those economic hardships, can disrupt children's development, physical and mental health, and also educational success and future life outcomes. Legislators, our policymakers, need to make swift action. They should definitely move now and with confidence to implement this effective and lasting solution of expanding the Child Tax Credit.

Juan Carlos: And what about at the state level? What do you think the Oregon legislature can do to improve the well-being of kids here in our state?

Ivy: Our Children Oregon, we ourselves are gearing up for the 2023 legislative session, and we create each year a children's agenda. And that is in partnership with all of our organizations across the state. And we have 127 partner organizations, including OCPP. They let us know their own legislative priorities that helps and center children and families and also the policies and investments that we need to make that will significantly improve child well-being and family well-being in Oregon.

And we have so far, still finalizing that, so I can't mention too many of the details of the 2023 children's agenda. But we are looking towards prioritizing five issue areas climate and sustainability, education, economic well-being, family and community and physical and mental health. These legislative concepts from our partners are really pointing towards what Oregon legislators need to do to help children and families.

And one of those that we're really excited to help support is the Oregon Kids’ Credit. Looking at, knowing the success of the national Child Tax Credit policy, how that can help Oregon families received some amount of financial stability that they need, and that we know will go towards helping support getting food at the table, stable housing. And of course, also that such a cash system is going to disproportionately help low income families and families of color.

Juan Carlos: For people who want to learn more, where can they find Our Children in Oregon?

Ivy: Yeah. You can visit our website at ourchildrenoregon.org or follow us on social media as well.

Juan Carlos: Any final thoughts you want to share with us regarding the state of Oregon's children?

Ivy: I think from everything that we've talked about, from mental health to also addressing and improving the economic well-being of families, through even, I touched on a little bit, climate change as well, where we can really support families is that we're needing to meet children's basic needs. Children need that solid foundation: quality health care, quality education, stable housing, food and financial stability.

We need to pass policies that center children and put children at the forefront. These are so essential to ensure that all children, regardless of their race, of regardless of where they live, have the resources they need to thrive.

Juan Carlos: Well, Ivy, thank you very much.

Ivy: Thank you so much.