A bipartisan group of senators is trying to hash out a deal on extending some of the Republican tax cuts from 2017. If Congress does nothing, the child tax credit will drop down to $1,000 per child from its current level of $2,000.
Some lawmakers want to expand the child tax credit massively. Others don’t. There’s a middle course that involves moderately growing the credit, mostly by folding in other, poorly targeted tax credits for families.
The first step down this middle road is to take inflation into account. President Donald Trump’s tax cut expanded the credit to $2,000 effective in 2018. Given the huge inflation since then, the credit has lost 15% of its value. Setting the credit at its original value requires increasing it to $2,400 and then indexing it.
That’s basic fairness.
The second step is to stop cutting off the child tax credit for 16-year-olds. Currently, parents lose the child tax credit on Jan. 1 the year the child turns 17. That means that at 16-and-some-number-of-days, a dependent child no longer counts as a child for the sake of the child tax credit. A child should qualify for the child tax credit up to his or her 18th birthday or high school graduation, whichever comes second.
It’s sensible that the child tax credit shrink for 16-year-olds since they can get paying jobs. So a $1,000 credit for 16- and 17-year-olds (and 18-year-old high school students) is a sensible compromise.
Also, the child tax credit could be slightly expanded by folding in the value of other less-well-targeted tax breaks. For instance, the child and dependent care tax credit subsidizes a certain lifestyle (two incomes and professional, certified day care) while excluding those who “pay for child care” by working less, building co-ops, or converting their garage into an apartment for grandma.
The tax code shouldn’t favor full-time-work-and-certified-day-care over other arrangements, and so much of the approximately $4 billion child and dependent care tax credit could be folded into adding a few hundred more to the child tax credit or offsetting the budgetary costs of the expansions I described above.
Sens. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Steve Daines (R-MT) proposed a bill a few years back that expanded the child tax credit by folding in some other tax benefits, such as part of the earned income tax credit.
Romney and Daines’s proposal, like President Joe Biden’s large child tax credit that existed only for a year, is a larger credit for children under age 6. This is sensible, since that’s when parents incur more child care costs, and also because younger parents tend to make less money than older parents. But maybe it should be a choice whether to move some of the child tax credit to the first six years.
There are plenty of debates over how much of the child tax credit should be “refundable” (transformed into direct subsidies for those whose income tax burden is smaller than their tax credit would be). What everyone should agree on is that the child tax credit should be fully refundable against payroll taxes, since it’s the people having children who are saving Social Security’s future.
All told, a modest reform to the child tax credit could look like this: Adjust it for inflation, expand it to include all minors and all high school students, and also roll in the value of the child and dependent care tax credit and the portions of the EITC that functioned as clunky mini-child-tax credits. The result might be somewhere around $3,200 a year, and you could allow parents to take an extra 50% of it in the first few years in exchange for reducing the credit by 50% in the later years.
This isn’t some massive pile of cash for parents — it takes the basic fairness of the child tax credit and combines it with some simplification and streamlining. That’s good policymaking.