PLANT CITY — Hailed as Social Security for children, a newly expanded federal tax credit will pay more than 35 million families in the United States up to $3,600 a year for each child.
The tax credit is higher than in years in past, it’s available upfront in monthly installments rather than at the end of the year, and it will go to many families who didn’t qualify before.
Among them are people like Karen Andres, 40, of Plant City, a single mother who entered the country illegally but who still pays federal taxes.
“It’s like a blessing from heaven,” said Andres, who came from Guatemala two decades ago and lives in a three-bedroom Plant City mobile home with her seven children, ages 1 to 19. “I have always worked hard to support my children, but the money is hardly enough for us.”
Andres has no Social Security card, normally required to pay taxes. But five years ago, she obtained an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number through a program created for undocumented workers in 1996 by the Internal Revenue Service.
Andres will receive $1,650 per month from July through December, a total of $9,900. It breaks down to $750 for her three children over 6 and $900 for her three children under 6. She is not eligible to receive a credit for her oldest child.
The expanded child tax credit is part of the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan, passed by Congress in March. The White House hopes to make the credit permanent.
The money is especially welcome now to Andres, coming as it does as she tries to recover from the economic hardships of the coronavirus pandemic.
A year ago, Andres lost her job selling food to farmworkers. For a couple of months, she relied on bags of food donated by charities to feed her children. She had to use what little savings she had accumulated to cover basic bills, including $550 in rent plus electric, water and cell phone bills.
In October, she found a job at a food packing plant that pays $9 an hour. A month later, a friend got her a job as an internet sales representative for a beauty products company. Together, they pay her just over $2,000 a month.
“That money, in Guatemala, would be a fortune,” Andres said. “But here it is totally different, only enough to survive.”
As an undocumented immigrant, she wasn’t eligible for the one-time $1,200 checks that Congress provided individuals last year through the COVID-19 relief measure known as the CARES Act. She appreciates that her family can take advantage of the federal child tax credit.
“I think the government is doing the right thing,” Andres said. “I say this as a woman and an immigrant who has practically raised her daughters alone.”
The men who fathered her children are no longer in her life, Andres said. The children are, from oldest to youngest, Ana, 19; Ailin, 16; Carla, 11; Nereida, 10; Alexa, 5; Davidad, 2; and Moises, 1.
The expansion of the child tax credit is an effort to reach as many families in need as possible, Ken Corbin, the IRS wage and investment commissioner, said in a statement July 9. The first child tax credit checks were sent July 15.
The credit will benefit more than 62 million children nationwide, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C. The breakdown is 31.9 million white children, 17.5 million Latino children, 9.4 million Black children and 2.8 million Asian children.
The center estimated the number of Florida children who will benefit at 3.8 million, 1.2 million of them Latinos.
The money will provide critical help to low-income Hispanic families, said Karen Lopez, an accountant with clients in Tampa and Sarasota. Even parents who reported no taxable income during 2020 can receive the money as long as their children are within the age limits and have Social Security numbers, Lopez said.
“This advance on the tax credit is very helpful,” she said, “because many people need the money right now, and in cash, to cover essential expenses.”
Getting the tax credit in advance means avoiding high-interest loans for many Hispanic parents, according to experts and activists working with community organizations. It also helps them plan a more realistic family budget.
“We see the need every day,” said Kirk Ray Smith, president and chief executive officer with Hope Villages of America, a nonprofit in Pinellas. “It’s important help that we have been waiting for a long time.”
Expansion of the child tax credit represents one of the largest efforts in modern American history to reduce poverty, said Norín Dollard, a research assistant professor in the Department of Child and Family Studies at the University of South Florida.
“I think it’s one of the most important initiatives in recent decades,” Dollard said. “It is extremely important to get families out of a state of poverty and this policy, from my point of view, will definitely help.”
Twenty-three percent of Latino children in the United States lived in poverty in 2019, compared to 17 percent of all children, according to the child advocacy group the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Most undocumented parents who pay their taxes using the Individual Taxpayer Identification Number had given up hope of receiving any help from the government, said Isaret Jeffers, founder of Colectivo Arbol, a nonprofit based in Tarpon Springs.
That they were left out of the CARES Act and other pandemic relief measures deepened their despair.
“This money is very important to buy food or clothes, or to cover child care,” Jeffers said. “It is not wasted money. It’s quite the opposite.”
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, the Tampa Democrat, told the Tampa Bay Times she would love to see the faces of the children who will benefit from the expanded credit. She echoed the need to help parents pay child care costs — and calles the need to make the credit permanent an urgent one.
“Now, we’re going to try to do better for our families, particularly for moms and dads who want to get back to full-time work,” Castor.
But the plan pushed by the Biden administration faces opposition from many Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who say it discourages families from working to earn a living.
“In recent months, Americans have seen the destructive consequences that follow when the government pays people not to work,” Rubio said in a statement earlier this month. “These new payments will recreate the same problems and cause totally new ones.”
Whatever the future holds, Poliana Conte is grateful for the money she knows is coming her way now.
Conte, a 40-year-old mother of four, entered the United States illegally from Brazil and has an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. She works at a hospice in Ruskin.
“Any help is welcome,” Conte said, “especially if it is a help for our children.”