(RNS) — As the season of Advent begins, millions of Christians around the world prepare to mark the birth of a child born on the margins of a great empire.
As it happens, Advent runs alongside another season of sorts in the nation’s capital: a lame-duck congressional session. Lawmakers aren’t expected to pass much legislation during this time — hence the fowl nickname — but they will likely consider extending Trump-era tax cuts for corporations.
This provides an opportunity — even a moral obligation — to bring good news to American children as well. Congress should not approve any year-end corporate tax breaks without expanding the child tax credit.
In the throes of the pandemic, in 2021, Congress expanded the child tax credit, raising the amount available to the poorest American families up to $3,600 a year per child and allowing the credit to be distributed across the tax year in monthly installments. The measure produced historic results. Even during a global pandemic and economic recession, the expanded credit helped drive the child poverty rate to a record low of 5.2%, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
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The current Congress allowed the expanded credit to expire at the end of 2021, leading to dire consequences: 3.7 million children, including 2.5 million Black and Latino kids, fell back into poverty. Some believe that number will rise to 4.1 million because of the still-rising costs of food, gas and housing.
These numbers represent a deep — and totally unnecessary — moral failure.
As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities pointedly said, “The success of the 2021 expansion showed us that high child poverty rates are a policy choice, not an inevitability.”
In a nation where millions claim to follow the teachings of Christ, this is strangely un-Christian behavior. In the Gospels, Jesus makes his concern for children crystal clear. In the Gospel of Matthew, he explicitly says that caring about God entails caring for children. “Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me,” he says.
In this country, we have constructed safety nets for corporations (in the form of financial bailouts), for farms (federal subsidies) and for retirees (Social Security.) Why haven’t we produced a social safety net for children, our most vulnerable members?
I’ve heard stories about parents who used the tax credit to pay overdue doctor bills, buy new school clothes, fix the family car and pay for internet connections so their children don’t fall behind in school.
One study found that more than half of families that received the child tax credit used the money to put food on the table. Think about that: The politicians who ended this program literally took food from the mouths of children. We know that taking this money away will hurt children, who did nothing to deserve such harm. Research shows that children who live in a family with income below the poverty line display lower levels of educational attainment, poorer health and lower earnings.
But expanding the child tax credit is more than moral; it’s also economically sound.
A report from the Joint Economic Committee found that every dollar of CTC payments generates $8 in social and economic benefits, as families spend this money back into the local community. Despite fears that the credit would deter employment, research proved otherwise, with nearly 94% of parents saying they plan to continue working at the same rate or even more.
Reviving the expanded child tax credit isn’t political — it’s about staying true to our moral obligations by giving families the means to survive and thrive.
The line between faith and politics is not always direct, but caring for children should not be a political matter. We have a generational opportunity to alleviate the scourge of child poverty in this country. According to researchers, the child tax credit lifted millions of families above the poverty line, decreased food insecurity by nearly a third and cut child poverty by 40%.
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We do not all have to agree on how to fight poverty in this country, but when we see something that works, such as the child tax credit, it makes little sense to stop merely because Congress can’t summon the political will. We have a moral obligation to ensure that every child — each made in the image of God — has the chance to grow and thrive. That is what it means to be “pro-family.”
When Jesus began his public ministry, he did so with a simple but profound message. He came, as the prophet said, to “bring good news to the poor.” This Advent, the expansion of the child tax credit would be welcome news for millions of American families.
(The Rev. Jim Wallis is director of Georgetown University’s Center on Faith and Justice and holds the Chair in Faith and Justice at the McCourt School of Public Policy. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)