Everyone remembers Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ ludicrous comment to the New Yorker in February, saying, “the child-tax credit just ran out, on December 31st, and now people are stealing baby formula.” There were several factual problems with this comment, the most notable being that the child tax credit is still alive and well.
The fact is that the tales of the child tax credit’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. While the credit has certainly undergone a number of transformative changes since it was first enacted as part of The Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997, the child tax credit remains in place even though the temporary changes made by the ARPA have expired.
When the credit was first enacted, it consisted of a $400 credit in 1998 and $500 in subsequent years. It was available for children under 17 years of age, and the child’s taxpayer ID was required. Over the years, changes included in The Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 and The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 saw its evolution to a $1,000 refundable credit.
The most recent changes to the credit include a significant temporary expansion as part of The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) enacted on December 22, 2017. TCJA increased the maximum amount per child to $2,000, significantly increased the income level for phaseout, and required that the taxpayer ID for covered children be a work-authorized Social Security Number. It also created a temporary $500 per dependent nonrefundable credit for dependents not eligible for the child credit. These changes are temporary and scheduled to be in effect from 2018 to 2025.
Another temporary transformation took place as part of The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 in March of last year. In addition to increasing the maximum amount available per child (up to $3,600), varying the maximum based on the child’s age, and making the credit fully refundable, this latest round of changes increased the eligibility age to include 17 year olds and featured direct, advance payments of child tax credit benefits to families in an effort to provide up-front financial support during the Coronavirus pandemic.
However, while payments were intended to provide only up to one half of the credit amount to which those taxpayers were eligible, a host of factors, including that eligibility was determined based on 2020 tax returns, have resulted in many families receiving more than they would have been entitled to claim on their tax returns, and this is creating a problem for them this tax season.
In addition, some families legitimately did not want to receive these advance payments. While a mechanism was provided to opt out, it is widely acknowledged that it was difficult to actually do so and that very few taxpayers, relatively speaking, took advantage of this option.
As a result, the advance child tax credit payments became at best a headache and at worst a new financial hardship for many families this tax season, as many either received a much smaller refund than they had previously been accustomed to receiving or actually owed—or owed more than anticipated—when they filed their return.
This begs the question of whether providing these advance payments actually achieved the goal of helping families through the pandemic. While some families undoubtedly benefited, for many it can be argued undeniably that the answer to this question is ultimately “no,” and the expiration of this temporary feature of the credit as intended on December 31, 2021 was the right result.
The expiration of the advance child tax credit payments will return the tax system to the way that it is supposed to operate, i.e., by claiming the credit on the annual tax return. It will also ensure that families are able to claim the correct amount at the outset and not find themselves liable for unexpected tax bills because they were paid out more than the amount to which they were ultimately entitled.