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By Travis Russell, SJ

Jesus had a special place in his heart for children. Take the story from Matthew, when the disciples asked Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He answered by sitting a child in front of them and said, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (18:1-5).

In Jesus’ time this would have been a showstopper. Children were low in social status. By placing the child in front of the disciples, Jesus was making a statement. And what a statement he made! He compared the child to the kingdom of God.

In the context of today’s equity debates, this story is worth reflecting on. It forces us to ask: how do we place children at the forefront of our decision making, and what specific policies would better help society reflect the kingdom of God?

Much like in Jesus’ time, when it comes to economic policy, children are overlooked and neglected. But recently there have been some hopeful signs, especially the bipartisan support for expanding the Child Tax Credit (CTC) and the talk of making it permanent.

Three of Bianca Simone and Drew Tunnell’s six children enjoy a snack in their temporary home after the family was evicted from their apartment in San Diego earlier in 2020. Simone turned to Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego’s food distribution program after losing her job and being unable to find work for months during the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/courtesy Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego)

Currently, the CTC is not fully refundable, which means if the credit (up to $2,000 per child) exceeds the taxes a family owes, they only receive up to $1,600. Families that make below $2,500 annually do not qualify and receive nothing.

Children don’t choose their parents, and all children deserve the opportunity to flourish. Excluding 27 million children from the full CTC because their parents’ income is too low neither places children at the center of policy nor reflects the kingdom. As part of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, the expansion of the CTC is estimated to help “27 million children – including roughly half of all Black and Latino children – whose families now don’t get the full credit because their parents don’t earn enough.”

Expanding the CTC will reverse this “poverty penalty” by making the CTC fully refundable and increasing the credit from $2,000 per child to $3,600 per child under the age of 6 and $3,000 per child ages 6-17. This policy will lift 9.9 million children above or close to the federal poverty line. It will also lift 1.1 million children out of “deep poverty.” While expanding the CTC is part of the American Rescue Plan, it only lasts for one year. We must make this policy permanent to keep children out of poverty.

Opponents of this expansion of the CTC fear the unintended consequences of perpetuating long-term unemployment by disincentivizing work. This argument misunderstands the policy and the difficult realities that low-income families must navigate. It ignores the fact that most parents, like Jesus, want the best for their children and place them at the center of every decision they make. Parents do not stop working because of an extra $3,000. They use it to catch up on rent, purchase food and school supplies, pay for childcare and unforeseen medical charges, and if there is any left over, take their child to a movie.

Jesus placing the child in front of the disciples seems like such a simple act. But that simple act has profound consequences. It reminds us of how near children are to the heart of God. And when Jesus tells his disciples to become like children, he is teaching us that in the kingdom status will be reversed – the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. As disciples of Jesus, then, we should seek and support specific economic policies that place children at the center so that our society better reflects the kingdom of God. Permanently expanding the CTC is one of these economic child-centering policies.

Fr. Travis Russell, SJ is the criminal justice policy advisor for the Jesuit Conference Office of Justice and Ecology. He has worked with Jesuit refugee Service in Malawi, taught at Verbum Dei High School and served as an assistant at L’Arche Seattle.