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Without monthly child tax credit, Maine families brace for tough choices

President Joe Biden arrives to speak at an event to mark the start of monthly Child Tax Credit relief payments, in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex, on July 15, 2021, in Washington.
Evan Vucci
AP file
President Joe Biden arrives to speak at an event to mark the start of monthly Child Tax Credit relief payments, in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex, on July 15, 2021, in Washington.

This weekend marks the first time in six months that families across the nation won't get a monthly payment from the federal child tax credit program.

Congress expanded the program last year. In Maine, nine out of 10 children are eligible. And without the extra help through the program, families in Maine are making some tough choices this month.

For Sarah Shinkman of Brunswick, the cost of sending a child to day care takes a big bite out of the family budget.

Shinkman and her husband have two young children and spend about 20% of their income to send their son to day care. But the child tax credit program cut those expenses in half. They received $300 a month through the expanded child tax credit program last year.

"It was a huge benefit," she says. "It meant that we were able to help put him through child care and offset some of the other financial expenses that we had in our lives. Basic expenses. You know, things like food, heating assistance, rent, other things that we needed to prioritize."

In Maine, 216,000 children received child tax credit payments last month. Ann Danforth, a policy advocate for Maine Equal Justice, says the extra cash helped parents like Shinkman cover basic expenses for their families. But it also helped some of the lowest-income families stay above the poverty line.

"These monthly payments, we know, are reducing child poverty. And we know that that improves children's futures on nearly every front, including improved health outcomes, improved educational outcomes and more. This is why it's so critical that we're doing everything we can to extend the child tax credit," Danforth says.

Monthly child tax credits expired last month after Congress failed to renew them with President Joe Biden's social spending plan known as the Build Back Better Act. The legislation is stalled in the Senate.

Without a payment this month, Shinkman says she and her family will tighten their grocery expenses and cut back on eating out. They'll also put aside less in savings as the costs of heating their home and paying for COVID-19 tests eat into their family budget.

"Having that $300 was a really meaningful benefit to our family," she says. "Not having that means that we now have to find a way to make up for that during a time when we're seeing rising costs across the board."

And starting this month, Shinkman and her husband will spend twice as much to enroll both of their children in day care. She says those expenses will double, from $600 a month to $1,200.

"Through the tax benefit, we were able to take away some of the financial stress that comes from having to allocate funds in a budget for our family monthly," she says. "Not having that means that we now have an additional stress that we have to consider. And that's a huge loss, certainly not just for us but so many other families."

For the lowest-income families, Danforth says 21,000 Maine children are at risk of slipping back below the poverty line if the child tax credit program isn't extended.

The program expanded the number of families eligible for the child tax credit. It raised the amount of money families would receive through those credits. And it allowed families to receive half of their annual credit through monthly payments, which they got from July through December.

Danforth says all eligible families need to file a tax return this year to get the second half of their child tax credit. That includes low-income families who perhaps haven't filed a tax return in the past.

"Those people, we're really encouraging to take action," she says. "There's free help available to folks to file taxes, because it's a complicated process, and it's great to get personal help for that."

Danforth says Maine families can contact the Cash Coalition, a group of organizations that offers free tax prep help to people in the state. She also says Mainers who might not have previously filed tax returns can get the credit through a lump sum if they file this year.