Shortly after I turned 8, my father died, leaving my mother a widow. Financially, they had prepared for the worst: life insurance, money in the bank, and a plan for my mother — who had sustained a serious back injury in her previous job at a nursing home — to begin earning a salary in a few years.
But then my brother was diagnosed with a disability. Various therapists labeled it differently: ADHD, autism, dyslexia, grief. None of these labels came close to communicating the direness of the situation. He was incapable of doing even the smallest amount of schoolwork without an adult standing by to keep him on task. Later, he developed extreme sensory sensitivities that led to frequent meltdowns at school. After sending him to various schools incapable of handling the problem, my mother resorted to homeschooling. After years of trying to balance this with finding a job, she ran out of my father’s pension as well as her savings. Ultimately, she suffered a stroke that left her unable to speak or live independently and was declared incompetent, unable to be responsible even for herself.
Throughout this story, my family was ineligible for any kind of government assistance — not food stamps, not the child tax credit (which requires income), not Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The Biden administration recently announced a benefit as part of the Covid-19 relief package that we would have been eligible for: an expanded child tax credit that allows parents to claim up to $3,600 a year per child under 6 and $3,000 a year for children ages 6 to 17. It’s a huge step toward alleviating many of the financial pressures associated with having children. For the moment, the larger credit is available for only one year, but it could easily provide a blueprint for things to come.
Immediately after this announcement, a debate emerged in some corners of the internet: Should this child benefit include all parents, or only those who have jobs and are “behaving responsibly?”
I understand the impulse to ensure the government isn’t discouraging people from working. I grew up attending a conservative religious school in southern Illinois where the teachers liked to throw around the phrase, “He who does not work shall not eat.” It’s an ethos I still admire as an adult.
But here’s the thing: Child care is work. Even in average families, it’s work that often complicates holding down a paid job. We’ve developed various ways of dealing with this reality, including public schools, paid day cares, maternity leave, and an acceptance that some people are going to be stay-at-home parents — at least while their children are too young to attend school. But many parents still fall through the cracks of these systems.
Unlike most government aid programs, this new proposal isn’t aimed at people specifically because they’re poor. Instead, it’s aimed at those who do a certain kind of work: parenting. Nonworking households — or, more accurately, households where no one has a paid job — still experience all of the financial burdens associated with having children. In 2019, there were just under 3 million of these households, comprising 8.7 percent of families with children younger than 18. That number is just 2.5 percent for households with two parents, and it includes a lot of people for whom unemployment is a temporary state.
Significantly, only 64.2 percent of two-parent households with children under 18 include two working parents. When there are two people to share the burdens associated with child care, more than a third of households choose to leave someone home with the children. My mother was one of these parents before her husband died. She was in good company — unpaid child care is arguably the most common full-time job in America.
For single parents like my widowed mother, things are harder. Without the flexibility of another person to watch the children, these parents are sometimes unable to hold down two full-time jobs at once. If the parent or one of the children is dealt an unexpected blow — a serious injury, a death in the extended family — two full-time jobs can become outright impossible to manage. Throw in something like a pandemic and an economic crash, and it becomes even harder.
Without support, nonworking families eventually end up the way mine did. My clearest memories are of the first three years of high school, when money was tightest. By that point, my mother had accepted she could return to work only if we could find a way to manage my brother’s disability. Like most parents, she kept the specific numbers of our budget a secret from her children, but I understood the general principle: Every dollar we spent left us with less time to find a solution. Absolutely nothing was really in our budget, so we came to reexamine what “absolutely need” meant many times over the course of running out of money. TV was declared nonessential and we stopped paying for it. We determined we could get by for years without new clothes. When we had budgeting exercises in class, I would dismissively tell my teachers it was easy — all you had to do was never buy anything.
By sophomore year, I was spending my Friday nights working the concession stand at my school’s football and basketball games. For five hours of work, I earned $7, which went into a school account that could only be used to purchase dance tickets. More importantly, I was given a free dinner for the night, and I was sometimes allowed to take the extra hot dogs home at the end of my shift. My mother would very seriously thank me, telling me the extra food would really help us.
I got really good at appealing to other people’s pity. I was always on the lookout for free food, free clothing, free transportation. I got other students to include me in their carpool to school by waking up at six in the morning. I begged fruit and vegetables off other people’s plates at lunch. It worked out for me, more or less. I was eventually given a privately funded scholarship for high school students who had overcome great adversity (it was the only thing that made it possible for me to attend college). The truth, though, is that living on other people’s pity is pretty terrible, even when all of the people involved are great. You never know when they’re going to decide you don’t need their help anymore — or worse, that you’re no longer worthy of it.
The expanded child tax credit is not based on pity. It doesn’t limit itself to those who need it. It defines parents by the work they do — parenting — rather than by their poverty or bad luck. If we specifically excluded “nonworking” parents from a benefit that is offered to all others, we’d be denying it to the parents who need it most. But more than that, we would be denying it to the parents who deserve it most: those for whom parenting has required the greatest sacrifices and are working to overcome the greatest obstacles.
My mother never stopped trying to stand up under the weight of her obligations. In fact, just before her stroke, there was a brief ray of hope. She had finally gotten my brother into a charter school, which allowed her to dive back into the process of retraining to become an art therapist. By that point, she was exhausted. But even after years of being beaten down and humiliated for her poverty, her fighting spirit still had not been entirely crushed. After several more months of practical training, she successfully earned her license. If she hadn’t landed in the hospital a month later, she would have eventually rejoined the workforce.
The new child tax credit wouldn’t have prevented my father’s death. It wouldn’t have kept my brother from becoming disabled. It wouldn’t have prevented my mother’s stroke. While the best doctors and therapists can be helpful if you have enough resources, even they can do only so much.
I do think, however, that it would have given her the resources to do a better job at the work she had devoted herself to: raising her children. It would have been enough to keep the fridge stocked. It would have been enough to try a different psychiatrist for my brother. It would have been enough that she didn’t have to spend time crying over the electric bill. Perhaps most importantly, I think it would have helped preserve that fighting spirit. I think it would have helped her recognize that the work she was doing was valued, that she was not less of a parent just because her children required more care than others.
June Kreml is an ex-evangelical Catholic writer and child care worker who lives in Oakland, California.