Sen. Raphael Warnock answers questions about federal aid from mothers Friday at Jackson Memorial Church in Atlanta.

Sen. Raphael Warnock answers questions about federal aid from mothers Friday at Jackson Memorial Church in Atlanta.

Credit: Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Sen. Raphael Warnock toured an Atlanta church’s vaccination efforts Friday and told a small group of mothers how provisions in the pandemic relief bill signed by President Joe Biden on Thursday can help children in need.

“As a kid who grew up in poverty, I know personally the struggles that families have,” said Warnock, who was raised in a Savannah housing project. “I know because I’m a product of good federal public policy, an alumnus of the Head Start federal program, the Trio program, I came through Upward Bound, benefited from Pell Grants. An investment in our children is a worthwhile investment.”

The nearly $2 trillion American Rescue Plan calls for a yearlong expansion of the child tax credit, boosting payments from a maximum of $2,000 per child up to age 17, to $3,600 per child under six and $3,000 per child between 6 and 18.

The benefits phase out at income levels of $75,000 for an individual or $150,000 for a couple. There is no floor to the benefits, so families with no taxed income can receive payments, a major change from the current tax credit.

About 171,000 Georgia children are in families expected to be lifted above the poverty line by the expansion, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and another 183,000 living below the poverty line are expected to be brought closer to it. About 91% of Georgians under 18 will benefit from the expansion.

Combined with measures including increases to the SNAP nutrition program, direct $1,400 payments and expanded unemployment insurance benefits, the plan could cut childhood poverty in half nationwide, according to a Columbia University analysis.

Child poverty has been a major problem in Georgia before the pandemic began, said Erica Fener Sitkoff, executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children.

“Going into this pandemic, nearly 20% of Georgia’s children were at or below the federal poverty line,” she said. “For a family of four, that means they’re living on about $26,000.”

Children living in poverty must often get by without enough food, they’re more likely to develop chronic physical or mental health problems and less likely to be able to see a doctor.

“It really impacts all areas of life for kids, and during the pandemic when there’s significant loss of instruction, because of the barriers to access school consistently, parents don’t have the resources to provide extra support or get additional childcare,” she said.

As of February, 2 million Georgia families with children have reported a loss in income, Sitkoff said.

“So a problem that was already a challenge on a mass scale going into the pandemic has just gotten much worse,” she said.

Now, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF, is the only direct cash assistance available to Georgia children in deep poverty, but it does little to reach children with the greatest need, said Alex Camardelle, a senior policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. Only five out of every 100 families in poverty receive cash assistance through TANF, and the maximum monthly payment, $280 for a single-parent family of three, has not changed in 30 years.

“This trend stems from racist attitudes around safety-net programs,” Camardelle said. “Black children are more likely than white children to live in states with low benefits. Lawmakers have also overlooked other opportunities to boost incomes for parents and improve outcomes for children, like creating a state-level Earned Income Tax Credit or raising the minimum wage.”

Though the programs are universal, they will disproportionately help Georgians of color, who are more likely to experience poverty. About 470,000 Black Georgians under 17 are left out of the current $2,000 child tax credit because their families’ incomes are too low, compared with 274,000 white Georgia children.

Direct payments to needy families without work or income requirements are nothing new in other parts of the world, but they represent a major philosophical shift in the U.S., Sitkoff said.

“This is a really great opportunity to see here in the U.S. and here in Georgia what this kind of flexibility and direct cash can really do for child wellbeing,” she said. “Based on what it is able to do in other places, I think it has the potential to do a lot of good.”

If the payments result in significant health, educational and quality of life benefits for children in need, it could be politically difficult to cut the benefits after the year is over.

Warnock and other Democratic lawmakers are calling to make the child tax credit and Earned Income Tax Credit extensions permanent.

“I think they shouldn’t expire,” he said. “I will be working very hard to make the Earned Income Tax Credit that we’ve created and the child tax credit, now expanded, permanent. I think it would be a mistake to double child poverty a year after putting these benefits in place. We can afford to do it. It’s the right thing to do.”

The tax credits — which likely would not have passed Congress had Warnock and fellow Georgia Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff not won Georgia’s two Senate seats in January — could become a key talking point for Warnock as he prepares to run for re-election next year.

A January survey conducted by the left-leaning Data for Progress found 59% of voters including 77% of Democrats and 59% of independents favor a refundable child tax credit.

Some Republican lawmakers argue that without work requirements, the benefits amount to nothing but a major welfare expansion.

In a joint statement, Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah said they would be willing to support child tax credits as high as $4,500, but only to families with working parents.

“We do not support turning the Child Tax Credit into what has been called a ‘child allowance,’ paid out as a universal basic income to all parents. That is not tax relief for working parents; it is welfare assistance,” the senators wrote. “An essential part of being pro-family is being pro-work. Congress should expand the Child Tax Credit without undercutting the responsibility of parents to work to provide for their families.”

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.