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The Child Tax Credit is set to expire if congressional action isn't taken

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Biden's social agenda is in peril now that Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia says he will not support the Build Back Better Act as written. A cornerstone of that bill is the revamped child tax credits. They will expire without congressional action. From member station WHYY in Philadelphia, Laura Benshoff reports that the program has helped ease the city's high poverty rate, and middle-class parents say they have grown used to that money.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: When single mom Antonia Gunter got the first advance child tax credit payment back in July, she did two things.

ANTONIA GUNTER: (Laughter) I caught up on some bills, and we had fun this past weekend.

BENSHOFF: Fun was a day trip to the Jersey Shore with her three kids - son Brian (ph), who's 10, and 7-year-old twins Gabriella (ph) and Isabella (ph). Sitting on the couch in their Philadelphia row home, Isabella is eager to talk about their trip.

ISABELLA: We got sand. Then we made a sandcastle - whoever can make the biggest sandcastle, and Mom won. Then we went to get some beach shells.

BENSHOFF: At the time, Gunter was unemployed. Brian has special needs, so just before the pandemic, she quit her job as a hospice aide to be with him more. But not working meant she was raising her family on traditional government assistance, which wasn't enough to pay her bills, much less cover things like birthday presents for her kids. The advance tax credit provided $300 a month per kid for children five and under and 250 a month for older children to single parents making around $112,000 a year or less. Reached later this year, Gunter says that money gave her family a new baseline of stability.

GUNTER: I couldn't live off of welfare. I couldn't do it anymore. It wasn't - it was no life. Getting the child tax credit and finally having some type of income, it made me just want to get more.

BENSHOFF: So Gunter went back to work and is saving to buy a house. In Philadelphia, where nearly 1 in 4 people lives in poverty, the tax credits could help lift 75,000 residents like Gunter above that threshold. Beth McConnell, with the city's Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity, says they could also slash deep child poverty in half.

BETH MCCONNELL: It's a game-changer for Philadelphia.

BENSHOFF: Although the U.S. has had a child tax credit for a while, the Biden administration tweaked it. It made the amount bigger, split it into monthly payments and took off the minimum income requirements. That last part has the potential to wipe out the most extreme forms of child poverty in the United States by providing an income floor to most families. But Luke Shaefer, who studies poverty at the University of Michigan, says if the program isn't continued, those benefits will be lost.

LUKE SHAEFER: We're going to lift children out of poverty and then - and go right back into it if we don't act.

BENSHOFF: On a national scale, the U.S. Treasury has deposited almost $93 billion directly into parents' bank accounts since July. The Census Bureau surveyed parents about how they spend the money earlier in the year and found the most common uses were food and bills. These local parents say it's helped them a lot.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah. It's like groceries, utilities, property taxes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So I had started investing into stocks and also cryptocurrency.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I'm able to offset the cost of her aftercare.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: And it helps me to go back to work.

BENSHOFF: LeAnn Finnegan (ph), a mom of one in Philadelphia, has been putting the money for her daughter, Jean (ph), towards child care. She also saved for home repairs. Finnegan says if the payments go away, her family will survive, but it'll hurt.

LEANN FINNEGAN: It's difficult to get used to, you know, like, a monthly check coming in and then having it disappear.

BENSHOFF: More than money, she says the credit has felt like a tangible thank you for how hard and expensive it can be to raise a family.

FINNEGAN: I don't know. It feels like a recognition for the amount of work it is to parent. I hate that it feels like a reward, but it's just - we're just so not used to it, you know - to being treated well by the government.

BENSHOFF: If it goes away, it'll confirm that feeling. For NPR news, I'm Laura Benshoff in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.