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Citing Promising New Research on Babies’ Brain Development, Senators Renew Pitch for Expanded Child Tax Credit

Washington D.C.-area residents Cara Baldari and her nine-month-old daughter Evie (L), and Sarah Orrin-Vipond and her eight-month-old son Otto (R), joined a rally in front of the U.S. Capitol Dec. 13, 2021, to urge passage of Build Back Better legislation and the expanded Child Tax Credit. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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Calling it the “biggest investment in American families and children in a generation,” five Democratic senators on Wednesday urged President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to keep the expanded Child Tax Credit at the center of any future version of their domestic policy agenda. 

The $1.75 trillion Build Back Better plan, which the House passed in November, has been stalled in the Senate largely due to opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate West Virginia Democrat, to some proposals, including extending a beefed-up version of the credit. The monthly payments, up to $300 per month for young children, ended in December. Census Bureau data shows most families have used the money for rent, groceries and school-related expenses.

“The expanded [Child Tax Credit] is a signature domestic policy achievement of this administration, and has been an overwhelming success,” Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Rev. Ralph Warnock of Georgia and Ron Wyden of Oregon wrote in a letter. “After historic progress, it is unacceptable to return to a status quo in which children are America’s poorest residents and child poverty costs our nation more than $1 trillion per year.”

The senators’ letter comes a week after Biden cast doubt on his ability to reach a deal with Manchin that includes the expanded credit. In a Jan. 19 press conference, he said he cares “a great deal” about the credit and said he would keep trying to get it passed. The senators also highlighted research released this week showing such policies can have positive impacts on babies’ brain development. With the Senate soon expected to return to discussions over Build Back Better, the question is whether the study could influence Manchin’s position.

Supporters of cash support for low-income families are “quite enthusiastic” about the findings, said Greg Duncan, an education professor at the University of California, Irvine, and a lead researcher on the $17 million Baby’s First Years project. He’s working with advocacy groups in West Virginia to schedule a briefing for Manchin, and added that the researchers have “tried to connect with all sorts of people on the political spectrum.”

The first U.S. evaluation of a “direct poverty reduction” focused on early childhood, according to the press release, the study randomly assigned 1,000 low-income, mostly Black and Hispanic mothers in four cities to receive debit cards with monthly payments of either $333 or a nominal $20. After one year, infants in households that received the assistance were more likely than those in the control group to show brain activity associated with thinking and learning.

The researchers suggest that the cash support can reduce stress on mothers and in turn improve home environments for young children. The study began before the pandemic, but bimonthly surveys by researchers at the University of Oregon have shown that lockdowns, family isolation and financial stress related to COVID-19 have led to greater anxiety among parents and irritability among children.

While researchers can’t predict if children in the families receiving the payments will continue to have an advantage, they didn’t expect to see such quick results.

“It surprised most of us that after only one year of [cash] transfers that this would actually show up as clearly as it did in the data,” Duncan said. “We always take the long view and thought it would take several years before the stress levels would be reduced.”

A second paper focusing on whether mothers spent the money on drugs or alcohol is expected this spring, followed by a third looking at whether the financial support is associated with mothers pulling out of the workforce. Critics, including Manchin, argue such programs should have a work requirement.

Duncan said that the findings add to a body of evidence that suggests “income has a causal effect on child well-being, particularly in early childhood and when poverty is quite persistent.”

Katharine Stevens, founder and CEO of the Center on Child and Family Policy, called the study an “unusually rigorous attempt to begin identifying the most effective, policy-relevant drivers of child well-being.” But she rejected the suggestion that the money was a direct cause of the brain growth in children. 

Babies “do not eat, breathe or interact with money,” she said, adding that more research is needed to determine the “mechanisms that matter most” in young children’s development. 

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