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Preparing for Zion: Extending the Increased Child Tax Credit

The increased child tax credit is one reliable way to reduce poverty, a key component of Zion building.

On July 15, 2021, the first monthly payments based on the increased Child Tax Credit went out to eligible parents under the American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law by President Biden last March as an attempt to alleviate the suffering caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. These payments involve up to $3,000 per year per child, depending on age and parental income. Commentators such as Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy and the Children’s Defense Fund have predicted that these cash payments could decrease child poverty in the United States by almost half.  As Latter-day Saints, we look forward to the establishment of Zion, when there will be no poor among us (see 4 Nephi 1:3). Joseph Smith taught, “We ought to have the building up of Zion as our greatest object” (Joseph Smith, Teachings, 160). One thing we can do today to move in that direction is to convince Congress to make the monthly, increased Child Tax Credit  payments a permanent part of U.S. support for children, instead of letting them expire in 2022 as the law currently provides. 

The Book of Mormon teaches that we must care for the poor in order to retain a remission of our sins (Mosiah 4:26) and that if we turn away the needy, our prayers are in vain (Alma 34:26). If we do not remember in all things the poor, needy, sick, and afflicted, we cannot call ourselves disciples of Jesus Christ (Doctrine and Covenants 52:40). Many children are among the poor, needy, sick, and afflicted; their poverty is a terrible scourge in the world. 

About one in three children in the United States is “living with a significant deprivation—insufficient food, seriously overcrowded housing, or a lack of access to medical care due to cost” (Jeff Madrick, “A Solution to Child Poverty,” Time, Feb. 3, 2020, 71–72). Some children in America live in extreme poverty, the kind of poverty that we associate with pictures of crying children in the poorest parts of Africa. The same organizations that help those desperately needy African (and Asian and South American) children, such as Save the Children, have also established programs to help desperately needy children in the United States (Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, 263). The situation is getting worse. The country whose people claim it is the richest, most powerful, greatest country in the world should not allow children to suffer as we do; we should be ashamed that we are abandoning our children to such grief—a deep need that they may not even recognize because they have never known anything better.

Some argue that cash payments will be a disincentive to work or make people lazy and dependent, but research shows that the lack of jobs, not the lack of will to work, underlies most unemployment (Edin and Shaefer, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, 159). Nobel Prize–winners Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo, of MIT, have conducted extensive international economic research and have concluded that “there is no evidence that cash transfers make people work less” (Banerjee and Duflo, Good Economics for Hard Times, 289). Indeed, cash transfers may allow people to work at all by helping them to afford transportation, child care, and other essentials that enable them to get and keep jobs.

Some children in America live in extreme poverty, the kind of poverty that we associate with pictures of crying children in the poorest parts of Africa.

We should be helping children in need from the time they are born (and before that, by helping their mothers to have healthy pregnancies). Once children become adults, repeating the same woeful patterns that so many of their parents and grandparents encountered, the total suffering involved in their lives may rise to heartrending levels, and the interventions to help them are much more expensive and much less effective. As Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have written, “One of the most infuriating elements of American myopia about investing in at-risk kids is that politicians often insist that they don’t have the funds to pay for social services—but they somehow find the resources to pay for prisons later on” (Kristof and WuDunn, Tightrope, 211). Preventative measures are less costly and more effective than reparative measures in almost every instance.

The national investment in children and their well-being is consistent with the special care and love that Jesus Christ shows to children (see, e.g., Matthew 18:6;19:14; Mark 9:42; Mosiah 15:25; 3 Nephi 17:21; Doctrine and Covenants 29:46–47). The call to action for the Latter-day Saint who is intent on building Zion is clear: people who are in trouble need help. The children of America are in trouble, and they need help. The Lord does not deny anyone that comes unto Him, “black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remember[s] the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile” (2 Nephi 26:33) and certainly children, adolescents, and adults are all cherished by our Father in Heaven. So we should treat all people as the brothers and sisters they are, at whatever point in the chronology of life they are in need. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland taught, “… the gospel of Jesus Christ holds the answer to every social and political and economic problem this world has ever faced,” and a part of that gospel is generosity to all God’s children. Elder Holland also taught of the damage wrought by poverty and the need to care for the poor:

When I see the staggering economic inequality in the world, I feel guilty singing with Mrs. Hewitt of “blessings which [God] gives me now [and] joys ‘laid up’ above.” That chorus cannot be fully, faithfully sung until we have honorably cared for the poor. Economic deprivation is a curse that keeps on cursing, year after year and generation after generation. It damages bodies, maims spirits, harms families, and destroys dreams. If we could do more to alleviate poverty, as Jesus repeatedly commands us to do, maybe some of the less fortunate in the world could hum a few notes of “There Is Sunshine in My Soul Today,” perhaps for the first time in their lives.    

We have taken significant steps to end poverty among the elderly in the United States through Social Security and Medicare, although there are still holes in that safety net. Older women who live alone are especially vulnerable to poverty (Susan J. Douglas, In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead, 143–144). Although there are (underfunded) programs to help some of the elderly (Meals on Wheels, senior companions, and the like), and the elderly can save for retirement if they are able to work when they are younger adults, we allow children who have no control over their financial circumstances to suffer in poverty—perhaps in part because they do not vote and so they can’t speak to power as adults can, and because their families lack education, jobs, and cash. 

The direct-to-families child payments require no new bureaucracy—they are deposited by the IRS into each taxpayer’s account, and those without accounts may create them through the IRS. They reflect child-care benefits common in other developed countries and encourage the creation and growth of families. Senator Mitt Romney’s Family Security Act (which seems to have been lost in the political shuffle), would have indefinitely sent to families even higher benefits of up to $4,200 per year per child and would have offset the costs of that increased child tax credit through the elimination of TANF block grants and the deduction for state and local taxes—possible cost savings that might still be considered. Other possible ways to pay for this program would be to tax capital gains as ordinary income, tax inheritances above a certain limit, and eliminate the mortgage interest deduction (at least for second homes).

As we think about cash payments to families with children, one of the most valuable things we could do for these needy families is to examine and, if necessary, change our attitudes toward them. People want to be able to support themselves and their families; they think others should do the same; they resent programs that provide benefits to people they see as less hard-working and deserving than they are but tend to accept programs that are available to everyone, as the child benefits essentially are (Halpern-Meekin, Edin, Tach, and Sykes, It’s Not Like I’m Poor, 1–10, 188, 204). Jeff Madrick wrote, “America has long been resistant to adequate … policies [to help the poor] because of its strong strain of thinking that the poor are responsible for their own situations, no matter their suffering … “ (Madrick, “A Solution to Child Poverty,” Time, Feb. 3, 2020, 71–72). This attitude is incompatible with the instructions of King Benjamin, who taught that when a person asks for help, it is a sin to refuse to give because we think “the man has brought upon himself his misery” (Mosiah 4:17). Certainly, the idea that people are responsible for their own poverty cannot be applied to children or the disabled. Actually, it cannot be applied to anyone without invoking “great cause to repent” (Mosiah 4:18). 

The idea of personal responsibility for one’s situation in life is perhaps more revered among some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints than is the commandment to help the poor and needy. But consider the situation of extremely poor parents, who before the 2021 American Rescue Plan were ineligible for the Child Tax Credit because they had no income to offset; for the same reason, they were not eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit, which since 1996 has almost entirely taken the place of cash welfare. These parents were not allowed to be personally responsible for the assistance they received from the government because their choices were limited by the rules tied to food stamps (SNAP) and (if they had any employment) the Earned Income Tax Credit. The difficulties of living with no cash income include the inability to pay for rent, utility bills, clothes and shoes, school fees and supplies, car repairs, gasoline, bus tickets, cleaning and laundry supplies, and the machines at the laundromat, among many other necessities. None of these things are covered by food stamps. Some unemployed job-seekers are so desperate for cash that they sell food stamps for much less than their value (a serious federal felony with a sentence up to 20 years—longer than those for manslaughter, aggravated assault with a firearm, or child sexual abuse, and so perhaps disproportionate to the offense) (Edin and Shaefer, $2.00 a Day, 107–112), sell their blood plasma as frequently as the law allows—perhaps ten times during a month (Edin and Shaefer, $2.00 a Day, 93), or even prostitute themselves (Edin and Shaefer, $2.00 a Day, 93 – 128). Non–job-related government and charitable benefits are insufficient to support an individual or family (Edin and Shaefer, $2.00 a Day, xi – xvii). The cash payments associated with the 2021 changes to the Child Tax Credit allow these families, and those more fortunate but with inadequate employment to meet their needs, to be responsible for the cash they receive, and to use it in a way that will benefit their family the most, whether that is food or a car repair needed to get a parent to a job. 

We mistakenly use “self-reliance” as a catchphrase or an excuse not to help people, but that is not what we have been taught by Church leaders. When helping the poor “in God’s own way” we should avoid fostering dependence—not the same thing as offering help to people in need. Sister Sharon Eubank, president of LDS Charities and first counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency, wrote, “[S]elf-reliance … means unleashing the divine power inside every individual to solve his or her own problems with the help of God, enabling them in turn to serve others.” Sister Eubank’s examples of how this should work do not involve making the less fortunate find a way to solve their problems by themselves, giving them the least amount of help possible, or requiring them to find a job before they are considered worthy of help. Instead, Sister Eubank gives the example of the prophet Joseph Smith who, when asked if there was some work two brothers could do in exchange for provisions after they had searched for work without success for days, immediately gave them a job to do (digging a ditch), then praised and (after they refused to pick out their own provisions) rewarded their efforts so generously that they asked if there wasn’t more they could do to earn what he had given them. He said, “If you are satisfied, … I am” (Eubank, citing James Leach, Juvenile Instructor). Joseph did not have the men find their own work—he told them of a job that needed to be done and that they were able to do. Nor did he give them only what two men might have earned as the going rate for digging a ditch (certainly less than two large chunks of good meat and two sacks of flour). He exalted those needy men by taking of his own abundance more generously than they deserved, if a cost-benefit analysis had been used, making his own richness lower without avoiding, cringing, or bragging about his sacrifice.

Sister Eubanks’ other example of providing in the Lord’s way involved a 

… modern example of the same delicate balancing of generosity and self-reliance[, which] occurred in 2013 when Typhoon Haiyan swept through the central Philippines, damaging or destroying over a million homes. Rather than just handing out aid indiscriminately, which could result in dependency and waste, the Church applied self-reliance principles to help affected residents develop the skills needed to rebuild. Housing materials were purchased, and local Church leaders contracted with construction mentors. Residents in need of housing were provided with tools, materials, and training, while they furnished the labor to construct their own shelters. They then assisted their neighbors to do the same.

In the end, each participant received a vocational certificate attesting to their newly learned skills and qualifying them for key employment opportunities. This combination of aid coupled with on-the-job training not only built shelters—it built capability. It did more than just restore housing—it restored the people’s confidence in themselves (Eubank, citing Church Newsroom, Feb. 21, 2014). 

Note that the Church did not require residents to find their own construction materials or to figure out how to rebuild their homes without assistance—the Church provided the materials without cost and supplied mentors to help the people rebuild their homes, probably better than they were before in many cases. Nor did the Church leave those who worked on their homes without a way to get additional work, but instead presented them with valuable vocational certificates. The Church did not aid the people “indiscriminately,” but it did aid them generously, beyond their ability to help themselves or to repay the Church. The Church was there at each step with qualified mentors, supporting the devastated people in recovering from their losses, encouraging them to help others as they had been helped, and giving them confidence that they could help themselves and that they would be helped as much as was needed. I have no doubt that residents who because of age, health problems, or other disabilities could not engage in the rigorous work of reconstructing their homes were not left to suffer without shelter, but instead received help, with whatever they could give in return (if only gratitude) graciously accepted. In this way, the poor were exalted and the rich were taught a lesson in humility when they worked on their own homes and those of others as part of being restored to wholeness. The better-off members of the Church were also made low by sacrificing for the benefit of their needy brothers and sisters, who in turn sacrificed for those who were also in need. This is the “delicate balancing of generosity and self-reliance” Sister Eubank described. While fostering dependence is to be avoided, fostering interdependence is a crucial, and perhaps paradoxical, aspect of building self-reliance. While the ideal way in which the Church was able to provide help to those in need after Typhoon Haiyan without waste may not be replicable at the level of government, it nevertheless provides an example to those in control of government purse-strings, which is essentially every voter—each of us. These efforts help all involved learn the principles and skills that are required to establish and sustain a society dedicated to the principles of Zion.

In the past quarter-century, the United States has relentlessly cut taxes and otherwise benefited the wealthiest people while cutting many benefits to those in need. For example, the 2020 CARES Act, intended to provide relief to individuals and small businesses from the extensive economic suffering caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, also included a provision that gave certain real estate developers earning more than $1 million per year an average benefit of $1.6 million in breaks that had nothing to do with COVID-19—a $135 billion-dollar rescue package for already wealthy people—while another provision benefited companies with gross receipts of more than $25 million and another, $1.1 billion enrichment to for-profit colleges. In addition to rigging legislation that was supposed to help struggling Americans in a difficult time to provide billions of dollars in windfalls for the rich, the CARES Act added much more to the national debt beyond what was envisioned as necessary to help people in need during the crisis. 

Consider the relatively modest cost of making the current Child Tax Credit permanent. First of all, the credit already exists at $2,000 per child and is paid once a year as a tax refund after a family files its federal tax return. In 2021 only, the credit is increased to $3,000 or $3,600 depending on the age of the child, and it is paid monthly. Making the monthly payments permanent would simply continue the 2021 pattern of monthly payments, which allows parents to budget and meet needs as they arise rather than trying to juggle needs in anticipation of a large annual payment (Edin and Shafer, $2.00 a Day). Making the increased amount of the credit permanent would cost approximately $100 billion per year. With the federal budget forecast to be $6,011 billion for the fiscal year 2022, the increased Child Tax Credit seems like an extraordinarily good use of a very small portion of federal spending. 

The economic and social emergencies caused by the COVID epidemic continue, as does the child poverty that already existed in our country. The United States has a history of successfully helping people in emergencies and in need. Nicholas Kristof wrote of the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” idea:

The problem is that this bootstraps narrative drives out good policy in three ways. First, it suggests that historically Americans rose purely through rugged individualism—think of the pioneers! Ah, but why did the pioneers go west? Because of government benefit programs that granted them homesteads! Ten percent of America’s land was given out as homesteads, and perhaps one-quarter of Americans (almost all of them white) owe part of their family wealth to the homestead acts. … In short, even when we were a much poorer nation, we were able to afford huge national investments to help disadvantaged (white) Americans, because they were a priority.

Kristof names as great national investments the homestead acts, public schools, state colleges and universities, rural electrification, and the G.I. Bill; I would add to those that benefit the general public Social Security, Medicare, public libraries, national parks, government support of homeownership, disaster relief, labor laws, and the regulation of food, drugs, hazardous activities, and negative impacts on the environment. (See Marilynne Robinson, “Austerity as Ideology,” in When I Was a Child, I Read Books, 50–53.) All of these “government programs” (two words that have become anathema in recent decades) have enriched American life and continue to do so, with some failures as life-saving regulations are whittled away and entire industries (such as healthcare) are allowed to grind the faces of the poor.

The austerity-related idea that everyone who works hard should be able to survive and thrive does not reflect reality, certainly not for children.

The policies purportedly aimed at fostering independence among the poor in the United States over the last 25 years have been like a slow-moving but increasingly powerful typhoon, leaving people homeless, destitute, desperate, acutely and chronically ill, prey to those who sell alcohol, drugs, and other so-called ways to escape one’s problems, and caught in a web of inequality as compared to those whose inherent abilities and privileges, family wealth, or good luck have enabled them to take advantage of their own hard work or even to succeed without it. People whose choices could make them partially responsible for the bad situation they are in (we may sometimes think of able-bodied adults in this regard) almost always have had experiences in childhood and adolescence that have impaired their ability to make the kinds of choices that would have saved them from their circumstances (Kristof and WuDunn, Tightrope, 253). So much depends on when, where, and to whom you were born, and whether you managed to escape the trauma and chaos that afflict many children’s lives—including the trauma of having parents who cannot support you.

The austerity-related idea that everyone who works hard should be able to survive and thrive does not reflect reality, certainly not for children—the individual pursuit of self-interest and the unfettered free-market economy do not create a collective rising tide that lifts all boats and the families aboard them (Anand Giriharadas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, 48–50). We have invested at least 25 years in this idea, and it has not worked. The distance between the haves and the have-nots in our society has widened and is growing ever wider. (See generally Robert E. Friedman, A Few Thousand Dollars.) It is time to try something else, and the increase in and monthly payments under the Child Tax Credit is something else that we are trying and should continue to try. Our nation has chosen a raft of policies that result in tremendous inequality in the way we tax incomes in the United States, including federal, state, and local taxes. We can choose other policies that help those in poverty to lead better, safer, healthier lives. Thus, in the spirit of King Benjamin’s teachings and of the principles of Zion, we must err on the side of abundant generosity toward the poor, until there are “no poor among [us]” (4 Nephi 4:3). This is also in our self-interest if nothing else, beyond any cost-benefit analysis—even those who are fortunate today are at the edge of an economic slippery slope, and things outside our control can cause us to begin a downward slide toward quicksand from which it can be impossible to escape without help from others. The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 should teach us that things can go from prosperity, or at least getting by, to physical or fiscal life-threatening struggle in a matter of weeks or even days.

Critics and supporters will no doubt find many examples at each extreme under the increased Child Tax Credit, everything from families where the monthly payments saved them from persistent food insecurity to families who used the money for a reason that we might consider frivolous or ill-advised. These examples may lead to tweaks in the program, but should not lead to its automatic sunset after one tax year, as the legislation currently provides. One reason the cash payments are a good idea is that they allow parents to exercise their agency to budget, spend, or invest the money in their families in the way that seems best to them. Some will make mistakes; others will indeed pull their children out of grinding poverty through wise choices. The generosity of the program allows for both, but without it, the program may go the ineffective way of other restrictions and programs that have been intended to help the poor by protecting the nation from the choices of the “undeserving”—to the point where people who were in deep need were left with no resources at all.

In the anti-Christ Korihor’s twisted view of society, he taught that “every man prospered according to his genius” (Alma 30:17). This un-Christian notion leaves out a lot of people who are not blessed with genius or whose circumstances have undermined the genius they have. Instead of waiting for all those in need to get their acts together and find a way to prosper, if indeed that is possible, we should instead follow the example of the Church in the time of Alma, who, 

… in their prosperous circumstances, … did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need (Alma 1:30).

If we truly believe, as we have been taught, that everything we have has been granted to us by God (Doctrine and Covenants 104:15), and that we do not deserve or own any of it, then we can share what we have and trust God to bless us even more abundantly—whether that sharing involves individual contributions and offerings, boxes of gently used stuff given to Deseret Industries or Goodwill, sacrifice in service to others, or the many and varied ways that we share our time and property of our “own free will” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:27). While we look forward with anxious anticipation for a future Zion where there are “no poor among [us],” we can here and now advocate through our votes and taxes, to share with others in programs the voters create as part of government through their elected representatives. It should include the extension of the 2021 increases in the Child Tax Credit and the monthly payments it entails for the indefinite future.

About the author

Lisa Bolin Hawkins

Lisa Bolin Hawkins has held editorial positions in multiple family studies journals. She has written extensively, including in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. She has a J.D. from BYU Law.
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