How the child tax credit became a lifeline for Nevadans: ‘It saved our lives’

By: - December 27, 2021 2:00 am

Miaya Bennett, left, receives a hug from her daughter Bailey, 3, near son Thaddeus, 4, in her home Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, in Las Vegas. (Ronda Churchill/Nevada Current)

Miaya Bennett can tell her 4-year-old son has been thriving the last four months in his new Montessori school. 

The family, which is still recovering from months of lost income due to the pandemic, wouldn’t normally be able to afford the $200 a week cost. 

But when the child tax credit began issuing $600 monthly payments to the family starting in July, a combined amount for her 4-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter, the Bennetts were able to at least put the oldest in school. 

“I keep thinking, am I taking away something from her to give to him?” she said. “But I know she is younger and he didn’t go to school when he was 3. In my mind I’m trying to tell myself that it is fair and that when she is 4 I’ll find a school and program for her as well. But as a parent, you want to do the same for both your kids without feeling like you’re choosing.”   

Like the Bennetts, families across Nevada and the country have relied on the expanded child tax credit to afford child care, pay rent, buy food and offset rising costs of living.

The last payment for the child tax credit went out Dec. 15. The program’s extension faces an uncertain fate in Congress, and many families who rely on regular payments aren’t prepared for the loss. 

Bennett has talked with her son’s school to figure out if there are ways “to make sure he can stay there because he is excelling.”

“We are trying to prepare and plan for January if they don’t move forward (with the credit) and look at how I’m going to be able to afford this so we don’t have to change everything he’s gotten comfortable with,” she said. “If they do grant it and make it something more permanent, it will be so helpful. It just sucks you have to make these decisions for your kids based on the situation that’s created for you.”

The Bennetts are just one of thousands of Nevada families at risk of losing the credit if it’s not extended. 

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 634,000 children in Nevada would lose out if the expansion is not extended. Of that, the group estimates 86,000 children under 18 would be forced back to or below the poverty line. 

A one-year extension of the credit is currently being debated as part of the Build Back Better bill, a nearly $2 trillion social spending bill that is going through intense negotiations in the Senate. 

The legislation, which in addition to expanding the child tax credit would make significant investments in child care, paid leave, housing, health care, education and other priorities, faces opposition from Republicans and resistance from Democratic Sens Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. 

Manchin recently said he wouldn’t support the legislation as written, which puts the bill’s fate as well as the continuation of the expanded credit in jeopardy. The bill’s delay also means families won’t get a payment Jan. 15.

Early in December, ahead of the final payment, Sharon Parrott, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, urged the Senate to pass the bill with the credit intact by the end of the month or risk disrupting a monthly payment millions of low- and middle-income households have come to rely on. 

“If the Senate fails to move forward quickly on Build Back Better, they will pull the rug out from under millions of families who are using this monthly child tax credit to pay for rent, for food, for school supplies, and other everyday needs,” she said. “The progress families have made in using the monthly child tax credit to improve their monthly financial stability will end.” 

Lawmakers passed the American Rescue Plan in March, which not only included historic funding to the states, but expanded the child tax credit, usually a payment for middle and high-income families received in one lump sum when they filed their taxes. 

Of Nevada’s Senate and Congressional delegation, only Republican Rep. Mark Amodei voted against the bill.

ARP increased the maximum credit from $2,000 per child to $3,600 per child under 6 and $3,000 for children 6 to 17. 

“More importantly, it established monthly advance payments of the credit directly into families’ bank accounts so they didn’t have to wait to get the credit solely as a lump sum after filing a tax return,” Parrott said. 

The legislation also made the credit fully refundable so low-income families that were previously ineligible could now benefit.

CBPP noted that in Nevada 271,000 children under 17, those previously left out of the full $2,000 credit, benefited from the ARP expansion.

Of the children in Nevada who weren’t eligible before the expansion, 142,000 were Latinx, 53,000 were white, 42,000 were Black and 10,000 were Asian. Another 23,000 were classified as multiple or another race.

If the legislation isn’t passed, they would, once again, no longer qualify.

From its start in July through November, families in Nevada received more than $750 million in direct payments. 

Speaking alongside Parrott recently, Whitney Kimball Coe, the director of national programs at the Center for Rural Strategies, said the direct payments aren’t paychecks or living wages. 

“They are a bridge to opportunity, to hope, to a better night’s sleep because families might not have to choose between food and keeping the lights on, or child care, or long overdue home repairs,” she said. “These installments translate to better mental and physical health in communities that need it most.”

Children notice

Elizabeth Renteria remembers a time before the pandemic when her family was financially stable.

The family, which includes her husband and three children, 11, 13 and 15, moved to Southern Nevada from California three years ago seeking a cheaper cost of living. 

Elizabeth Renteria, 34, right, holds dog Tita and stands with husband Jorge Sigler, left; and children Elizabeth, 11, and Alan Cadena, 13; outside her home Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, in Las Vegas. Renteria, who has three children, used a portion of the child tax credit to purchase her home for her family this summer. (Ronda Churchill/The Nevada Current)

Between her husband’s job working for a painting company and her salary working as a guest room attendant for Caesars Palace making $18 an hour, the family was in a secure enough position to start saving with the hope of buying a home.

Like most families, they never imagined a pandemic would end up eliminating both their jobs. 

“I wasn’t prepared for the shutdown,” Renteria said. “I had money saved but not enough because I never thought this was something that was going to happen. We had $7,000 saved but it wasn’t much.” 

While Renteria qualified for unemployment benefits, her husband didn’t.

Living on a tight budget, the family spent the next year relying on food from the Culinary Union and food banks. 

“I also had to apply for food stamps,” she said. “I’ve never had to do it before, but had to use these resources in the pandemic.”

Even after getting hired back by Caesars in the spring, the family still was behind on bills and struggling to get into their own home. 

In March they were told they needed to be out of their home by April.

“We were renting a house and the owners said they were going to sell so we needed to move out,” she said. “I wasn’t able to prove my income so I wasn’t able to get an apartment.” 

Unable to secure an apartment to rent, the family tried purchasing a home instead. 

With both parents working, they began a grueling journey to pay down bills and get financial footing to find a place to live. Seeing the rental market was volatile, they decided it might actually be more cost-effective to purchase a home, a dream they had pre-pandemic.

“The first payment (for the child tax credit) just came at the right moment,” she said.  

Elizabeth Renteria, 34, stands outside her home Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, in Las Vegas. (Photo: Ronda Churchill)

The first allotment of $750 was deposited into their account as the family was finalizing paperwork to purchase their first home. Renteria believes the extra income in their account contributed to them being able to close on their home. 

Payments for the rest of the year have helped the family whittle down bills, like the electricity bill they got behind on during the pandemic. Mostly, it helps them contend with rising costs. 

“Everything is getting expensive,” she said. “Gas is getting expensive. Everything is going up. I think this is going to be needed. At least I won’t be struggling and thinking ‘what if I can’t pay the bills’ or ‘what if I don’t have food.’ I’m going to be more calm knowing this will help us.”

More than anything, the extra money has given their family some peace of mind. 

“Even when you don’t tell your children what’s going on, they notice,” she said. “When we go to the store now and they ask for something, I don’t have to tell them, ‘sorry, I don’t have money for that.’ We’re able to provide food on the table. I know my children are more calm right now. During the pandemic, they are also stressed out.” 

$750 ‘saved our lives’

Prior to the pandemic, Amanda Nelson and her husband and three children, 16, 14 and 9, were always financially stable.

“We were never doing really, really great, but we were always making it. We were all right,” said the Washoe County resident. 

As the world and most industries in Nevada shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Nelson continued working as a bus driver with the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County 

Even when her husband, a plumber, got laid off, the unemployment insurance he qualified for kept the family afloat while he searched for a new job.

But a medical emergency over the summer could have easily ended their stability. 

While driving the bus in June, Nelson felt the worst pain she has ever felt, which turned out to be a kidney stone. 

“I had to have surgery. Then the tubes closed and my kidney wouldn’t work right. They had to go back and do a second surgery and put tubes in my kidney to drain. I was off work for eight weeks. I spent a week and a half in the hospital. It was the worst pain I ever felt in my life.”

Though she qualified for short-term disability insurance, she only brought home $200 a week, compared to $900 a week she was making driving the bus. 

“It was a big, big hit,” she said. 

Following the passing of ARP, Nelson heard rumblings about a potential child tax credit but didn’t know exactly what it was. 

“One of my friends said it was going to be coming, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. I figured it out when it came through,” Nelson said. “Honestly, when my friend was saying it was going to happen, I didn’t believe it. I said, ‘yeah, yeah, I’ll believe it when I see it.’ ”

Just as she began to recuperate from her surgery, the first payment of $750 hit their account, making up for lost income. 

“Thank God we started getting the $750 because it saved our lives,” Nelson said. 

Months later when her union went on strike for better working conditions, the child tax credit helped make up for lost income.

She doesn’t anticipate for the payment to continue after December, but says her family will make do. Nelson, however, worries about other families who need it to get by.

“It is helping a lot of families who really, really need it. I think keeping it long term would be a good idea,” Nelson said. “A lot of families need the help and could get close to getting out of poverty.”

‘We are praying they extend it’

During a press call Dec. 8, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said the true impact of the child tax credit won’t be seen in one tax cycle. 

But Parrott said data already show the payments helped “reduce child poverty by more than 40% lifting more than 4 million children above the poverty line.”

“The expansion also significantly narrows the wide gap in poverty rates between white children and Black children and between white children and Hispanic children,” she added.

In a December report, CBPP estimated that 59% of families have used child tax credits on food. 

The data is based on the U.S. Census Bureau American Housing Survey from July 21 through Sept. 27 on households.

CBPP’s analysis also estimated that 52% of households used the tax credit to pay utility bills, 45% on rent and mortgage and 44% on clothing, 

Another 40% of households, like the Bennetts, said they used the credits for education costs – and they say it has been worth every penny. 

“He had a really bad stutter he was struggling with and I feel like it was because he wasn’t around children his age,” Bennett said of her 4-year-old son. “His speech is so much stronger. He’s working on his letters. They are memorizing songs they learn in school and he comes home singing them. He’s telling me about the stories they read, and his attention to detail is amazing. All of it is just really exciting.” 

Even if the Bennetts didn’t need the child tax credit for her son’s school, Bennett said “there is always a new bill.”

“Because of the situation prior, we are in a hole,” she added. “So every time it comes in, it’s going straight to his school. Whatever is left is going basically to add to paying bills, feeding the kids, putting gas in the car to transport my son to and from school, making sure I have gas to make sure I can show clients homes. We’ve been working as a family to make the best of the situation we have.” 

Bennett and her family moved to Southern Nevada in 2019 from Connecticut to be closer to her sister.

Working as a medical dispatcher where she would pick up and drop off lab results for hospitals, she was able to transfer to Las Vegas and planned to do that while starting a business with her sister flipping houses.

Her husband, who worked 10 years as a call center supervisor, thought he would be able to find a job that paid a comparable amount.  

“Everybody here was trying to pay $13 an hour,” she said. “When you’re coming from a supervisor salary position it’s hard to transition to less money. We were being offered entry-level positions, but they were $13 an hour and it wasn’t suitable for the family.”

Then COVID hit and to her surprise, Bennett lost her job.

Bennett qualified for unemployment insurance, but it ended in September, only months after she lost her job. The family took odd jobs to make ends meet. 

“I do balloon decorating for small birthday parties and little things with people I knew who would give me a couple dollars here and a couple of dollars there,” she said. “My husband was helping people who he knew with their books for their businesses and getting paid on the side.”

Her mother, who was living in New York at the time, moved to Las Vegas to live with the family. 

The Bennetts rely on the husband’s job, which brings in about $1,800 every two weeks. Her mom also recently got a job to help out. 

Even living in a home with multiple people working, money is still a struggle. 

“Electricity for the home. Food for the kids, Gas for the car to get my son to and from school,” she said. “Everything just became a struggle, which wasn’t even thought about before. And now we’re penny-pinching and trying to constantly keep our account up to date.”

After $1,000-a-month rent, and an assortment of bills, which includes car insurance and payments, the remaining $1,500 a month, which includes the credit, goes toward keeping their children in activities — karate and ballet — and other household expenses.

“We just found out the other day we need two new car tires,” she said. “Those unexpected costs are involved as well.”

Bennett, who gother real estate license in September, was working from home as she watched her 3-year-old daughter. She’s been trying to get out of the house more to start making money. 

If she were able to afford daycare for her youngest, Bennett said that would be a gamechanger and allow her to focus on her career, potentially making more money. 

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the annual cost for child care for an infant in Nevada is $11,408 annually, or $951 a month. Child care for a 4 year old is $9,050 a year or $754 each month.

Being able to put one child in school is still beneficial, Bennet said.

“We are praying they extend the credit,” she said. “We know nothing is forever. We’ve been trying to plan and get ahead so we don’t get into a situation like we did before not knowing. We’re trying to get ahead of bills and save as much as we can.”

‘Everything increased’

Even if Build Back Better is passed early 2022 with the child tax credit intact, Parrott said the delayed vote means “the monthly deposit that many families have been using to meet everyday needs won’t be made.”

Tiara Moore, who gets $800 a month from her child tax credit, is already worried how she will afford rent if the credit isn’t extended. 

Rent in Southern Nevada has increased more than 20% since February 2020. According to rent.com, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment was $1,814 in the third quarter of 2021, up from $1,487 a year ago.

Moore, along with five kids, 19, 16, 8, 2 and a newborn, share a two-bedroom apartment for $1,237 a month. They are already bracing for an increase in April, which will price them out. 

“My neighbor had her rent increase by almost $200,” she said. “So I know for a fact they are probably going to raise my rent. It will probably go up to $1,500, and I’m not going to be able to afford that.”

Moore said the payments have essentially supplemented her income. 

From rent to gas prices, Moore has noticed everything has gone up.

“My insurance went up. My registration went up,” she said. “Food costs went up. Bills went up. It used to take $45 to fill my car up when gas was in the $2 range. Now it takes like $97. Everything increased. The $800 really is a supplement to everything that went up.”

Moore hasn’t always had to cut back and pinch pennies.

When she lived in Las Vegas from 2016 to 2018, she said she paid around $900 for a three-bedroom apartment. She took a job in Philadelphia, but then returned to Southern Nevada in 2020 to work as a housing justice organizer for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. 

“I came back and a three-bedroom is nowhere near the cost it was before,” she said. “The city changed. It was more affordable before I left. I came back and everything pretty much doubled.” 

Moore has cut back as much as she can, including getting rid of a $300 monthly car payment.

“I sent the car back and when I got my stimulus I went and got a car for $4,500 because I couldn’t afford the car note,” she said. “I was able to negotiate a COVID-hardship where they didn’t put it on my credit because I paid my payments on time. I just could no longer afford it.” 

The first payment in July hit at the perfect time, when she had car trouble. 

“As soon as the first child tax credit hit, my air conditioning went out,” she said. The repairs cost $852.  “If I didn’t have that money, I would have been riding in a hot car all summer.” 

She doesn’t know what will happen if Congress doesn’t extend payments. 

“If they take away the tax credit, which has been helping a lot of people maintain, seeing that everything has increased and nobody has gotten a pay increase, it just doesn’t make sense,” Moore said.

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.

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