To End Child Hunger, Congress Should Start By Expanding the Child Tax Credit


In December of 2021, the expanded child tax credit – a focal point of the American Rescue Plan Act passed in March of 2021 during a height of the COVID-19 pandemic – was on the verge of expiring. The case for an extension was compelling: In only six months, the credit had driven a significant decline in food insecurity among households with children and an even bigger drop in child poverty rates, particularly among Black and Latino families who have disproportionately higher rates of both conditions. Studies have estimated that making that expanded credit permanent would have an even more profound impact on people’s lives.

Legislation recently passed by the House of Representatives would restore a version of the expanded credit, and the Senate should pass it without delay. With 13 million children in the United States currently experiencing food insecurity – nearly 1 in 5 children across the country – Congress should consider this just one step toward an even bigger goal: ensuring that no child ever goes hungry again.

As the head of the Alliance to End Hunger – a coalition of more than 100 corporations, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, universities, foundations and international groups – I believe this goal is firmly within our grasp. But only if our nation chooses to reach for it.

Initially created by Congress in 1997, the federal child tax credit has helped families for more than two decades. Unfortunately, restrictions on eligibility, particularly for families with no or very little income, have limited its effectiveness. The American Rescue Plan Act’s expansion changed that. The maximum credit increased from $2,000 to $3,600 for qualifying children under age 6 (and $3,000 for those between age 6 and 18). Families at the lowest end of the income spectrum were finally made eligible for the full amount. And rather than waiting until tax-filing season, families could receive up to half of the credit via monthly installments.

The effect on hunger and poverty was immediate: Within one month, food insufficiency among low-income families declined by 25%. More than 3 million children were lifted out of poverty each month the expanded credit was in effect, including 3.7 million children in December of 2021. Nationwide, and in many states, families reported that the most common use of the monthly credit payments was to buy food. It also helped with other necessities like rent, utilities and child care.

When the expanded credit lapsed, the effect was also instantaneous – but in the opposite direction. The 3.7 million children previously lifted out of poverty fell right back in. Between 2021 and 2022, child poverty rates more than doubled, and the number of households with food insecure children rose by 42%.

Many policies take years or even decades before their full impact is revealed, but the expanded child tax credit isn’t one of them. We know that it works. There are some significant differences between the version now under consideration and the expanded credit that Congress approved in 2021 – the maximum credit isn’t as high and there are no monthly payments. Still, studies estimate that it would lift as many as 400,000 children out of poverty. Fewer children would go to bed hungry. That is reason enough for every member of Congress to vote “yes.”

But even an expanded child tax credit can’t solve hunger on its own. By enacting policies that adhere to the following principles, Congress can make additional progress that would last not just for a few months, but for years and even generations to come.

Leave no one behind. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) provides critical nutrition and health services to pregnant and postpartum women and young children. WIC serves approximately half of all infants born in the U.S. And participation has been associated with reduced food insecurity, lower rates of poverty and better health outcomes – and it has grown in recent years, which is welcome.

It is essential that Congress votes this week to approve government funding legislation that includes a funding increase of more than $1 billion for WIC, which would ensure that WIC can continue to serve anyone eligible to join the program. Congress must also pass the MODERN WIC Act, which would make WIC accessible to more families by ensuring families can sign up for and receive benefits online and give WIC offices additional funds to upgrade their technology.

Invest in what works. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is the nation’s largest food assistance program. SNAP provides benefits to nearly 42 million people, more than 40% of whom are children. Like WIC, SNAP benefits reduce hunger and poverty, but there’s certainly room for improvement.

There are several steps Congress can take to increase SNAP’s effectiveness for children and families, from ensuring that benefits cover average meal costs in every county to expanding financial incentives to help families afford nutritious foods. SNAP is the largest program included in the farm bill, legislation that is renewed periodically (it was last reauthorized in 2018) and covers a variety of nutrition and agriculture programs. A stronger SNAP should be the centerpiece of a long overdue reauthorization of the new farm bill that Congress is due to authorize this year.

Build on momentum. Beyond the child tax credit, additional anti-hunger policies enacted by Congress and the federal government in recent years provide cause for optimism. In 2021, the U.S. Department of Agriculture spearheaded a 25% increase in average SNAP benefits by updating the Thrifty Food Plan that calculates food costs. In 2022, Congress created a permanent Summer EBT program to help ensure children from low-income families received food assistance during the summer months – a time when hunger can spike because children lose access to school meals. Already, 37 states have enrolled in its inaugural rollout in summer 2024.

These principles all reflect a simple premise: Children should never go hungry – no matter where they live or how much income their families earn – and every program that provides that food should be protected and strengthened. Hunger may be widespread, but it is not inevitable. We have the means, resources and evidence. With the political will to match, we can not only meaningfully reduce hunger in America, but eventually eliminate it for good.


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