The COVID-19 pandemic has upended households across the country and exacerbated long-existing income inequalities. As has been well documented, not all have felt the effects of the pandemic and its corresponding economic crisis the same. Women, caregivers, and children, particularly those from low-income households or communities of color, have faced unique challenges.[1]

Since March 2020, women have both disproportionately lost their jobs and dropped out of the labor market as compared to their male counterparts. Black and Latina women, single-mothers, and workers concentrated in female-dominated industries such as healthcare, food service, and domestic work, have been impacted the hardest. As the pandemic has stretched on, these challenges have not dissipated. When the new school year began in September 2020, women left the workforce at four times the rate that men did.

It should come as no surprise then that children are also experiencing record rates of poverty and food insecurity, and that mental health providers are reporting increases in mental illness and trauma amongst their clients under the age of 18. The monthly child poverty rate rose from 18.7 percent before the pandemic to 21.4 percent in August. A survey completed in February 2021 estimated that around 7 to 11 million children live in a household where they are not eating enough because the household cannot afford to buy food. Since March 2020, mental-health-related emergency room visits have increased by 24% for children between the ages of 5 and 11 and 31% for children between 12 and 17, compared with the same period last year. Like their mothers, children of color and children from low-income households have been acutely impacted by the pandemic and its disruptions to daily life and school. In discussing the challenges her low-income clients have endured during the pandemic, Alicia Lieberman, the director of the Child Trauma Research Program at the University of California San Francisco explained, ‘“There’s no question that it’s because they’re already dealing with trauma’… and the virus ‘becomes one more source of uncontrollable danger.”’

In response to these multiple crises, the federal government has introduced and implemented anti-poverty policies that many advocates would have thought politically unfeasible just a year ago. While the three rounds of one-time direct payments included in each of the federal government’s coronavirus relief packages are the most sweeping interventions, other policies have been introduced that more directly target the unique needs of caregivers and their children. For instance, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), passed in March 2020, was the first time in U.S. history that the federal government mandated paid sick time and family leave, albeit in a limited way. Additionally, in February 2021, Congresswoman Grace Meng introduced House Resolution 121 to recognize that “the United States needs a Marshall Plan for Moms in order to revitalize and restore mothers in the workforce.” The Resolution provides a detailed explanation of the specific ways that mothers, especially caregivers of color, have been impacted by the pandemic and offers numerous reforms to “secure meaningful and sustainable economic recovery” for them and their families, including paid sick leave, universal childcare and early learning, and increased investment in mental health care resources.

Most recently, President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill includes a first-of-its-kind program to provide direct payments to families with children 17 and younger, no strings attached. The bill amends and expands the child tax credit to give families a monthly check of up to $300 for every child under the age of 5 and up to $250 for every child 17 and under for one year beginning in July. The tax credit will apply to all single-parent households who make annual incomes up to $112,500 and to couples who make up to $150,000 a year. More than 93% of American children, an estimated 69 million kids, are expected to receive benefits under the plan. Furthermore, families will receive the tax credit in addition to any other federal benefits they currently receive, such as Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food stamps. Projections by the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia estimate that the monthly checks will reduce child poverty by 45% overall and by more than 50% among Black families. Some Democrats have claimed that they will advocate to make the expanded tax credit permanent. Although the Biden Administration has not yet released the details of its “Build Back Better Plan,” the package is expected to propose to make pre-K universal for 3- and 4-year-olds, extend the monthly child tax, and expand paid family leave.

While these policies reflect a recent shift in how the federal government thinks about combating poverty, providing aid to families regardless of employment status is actually a return to previous federal welfare policy. The Aid to Families with Dependent Children, passed in 1935 during the New Deal, was a federal grant program that enabled states to provide cash assistance to children whose parents were either unemployed, deceased, incapacitated, or otherwise absent. This system remained in place until 1996, when it was abolished by President Bill Clinton’s Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act and replaced by the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. TANF provides only temporary federal assistance to families who are working and resulted in a dramatic decrease in the number of people receiving federal aid. Since 1996, there have been few resources available for people who are unable to find or keep jobs and their children.

This tax credit expansion comes on the heels of a growing body of research focusing on inequality and early childhood, an increasing number of privately-funded guaranteed income or universal basic income (UBI) pilot projects, and a broader movement advocating for direct cash assistance to Americans. In fact, just last week, New York University announced the establishment of the Cash Transfer Lab “to examine the impact of cash transfer policies, such as a universal basic income, on American families, communities, and economies.” These policies also bring the U.S. more in line with the 17 other countries that subsidize childcare for significant portions of their population.

While the question remains whether these interventions will be able to garner enough political support to continue to exist post-pandemic, at the very least the expansion of the child tax credit and similar policies reflect a growing recognition that the federal government needs to rethink the ways it supports children, caregivers, and their families.

[1] The language of this post matches that of the studies and legislation cited for accuracy’s sake. Unfortunately, the research that is readily available in this area does not track the effects of the pandemic on gender nonconforming or nonbinary parents. More research must be done to better determine the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on these caregivers and to develop more targeted solutions to their unique needs.