On: February 16, 2022

The extra cash didn’t deter parents from working, but lack of money can.

It’s been a rough couple of years for Angelique Cribbs, mother of two. A breakup with her partner left her without a home or savings for a security deposit in Boston’s steep rental market. When COVID hit, she was furloughed from her job. And she endured a series of stressful moves in and out of friends’ and relatives’ apartments, a homeless shelter, and hotels before moving into a temporary apartment leased by a social service agency.

So when the Advance Child Tax Credit payments began to land in her bank account last July, they offered Cribbs something she needed as much as the money—a little hope.

“It helped me save up to find an apartment for me and my kids,” she said. “In case I do find one.”

In December, those monthly federal payments ended. A month later, efforts to sustain them failed when support for the Build Back Better Act flatlined in the Senate. Many progressives had hoped to make them permanent.

Research found that the payments—up to $300 for each child under age six and up to $250 for each child aged 6 to 17—briefly reduced child poverty in the U.S by almost 30 percent. Unlike the regular child tax credit which was taken as an income tax reduction, the advance payments benefitted even families earning too little to pay income tax.

For opponents, a chief argument against the payments is that they would disincentivize work. But for Cribbs and other parents living in temporary emergency housing with Children’s Services of Roxbury, hard work alone hasn’t been enough to avoid financial hardship—or to escape it without a lifeline.

Paying Down Debt

Marlin Jimenez, assistant director for the organization’s scatter site housing program, said that many homeless families used the extended child tax credit to pay off debt, especially phone and utility debt. “It’s rare when family comes to a shelter that they don’t have debts,” she said, “I think that was a huge relief for them.”

Children’s Services of Roxbury can sometimes get funding to help with utility debt, said Joan Sinner, vice president of housing and stabilization. But for some, their debt is deep. Families who can’t turn utilities on because of unpaid bills will not be approved for subsidized housing, let alone a market rate lease, she said. “It has the potential to prevent someone to being able to rent a place.”

Debt reduction was a major use of extended child tax credits, according to a U.S. Census Bureau study which found that the payments reduced family hardships. Some other top uses for the funds were food, rent, mortgages, utilities, school expenses, and childcare.

Cribbs used money from her first payments ($550 for her now 4-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter) to buy food while she waited for food stamps. The rest, $2,500, is waiting for the day she finds steady work and an affordable apartment. If the rent is subsidized, there might even be money left over for beds, she thinks. “We have no furniture of our own.”

She seemed puzzled by the idea that $550 a month could discourage her from working. “$550 is not enough to take care for three people,” she explained “But it would help me worry less.”

Indeed, researchers at Columbia University using real-world data found that the expanded Child Tax Credit did not reduce workforce participation, contrary to the predictions of some conservative economists.

For Cribbs, what’s been keeping her from working lately is the lack of money.

Income Obstacles

Before COVID hit, she worked for seven years for the same agency as a medical scheduler in a daycare program for the elderly. She was able to work full time because her son’s early childhood education program included subsidized daycare. But even at $20 an hour she couldn’t save and felt she was barely getting by, she said. “I couldn’t take my kids out to eat or anything.”

Then came the breakup and work furlough. When her job resumed, the risk of contracting COVID at work and spreading it to her family still seemed too high. Instead, she took a job with a friend’s pharmaceutical delivery company.

But when it came time to enroll her son in a Boston Public Schools prekindergarten last fall, she needed a new daycare option. None she could find were affordable. (As of early-February, 15,000 children in Massachusetts were on the waitlist for a state subsidized daycare voucher, WGBH News reported.) She couldn’t always find someone to get him on the morning school bus so that she could work a 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift.

So, Cribbs quit the pharmaceutical job and tried to pick up money working part time for Door Dash. But her used car proved unreliable, and she lost days of work and much of what she earned to car repairs.

Meanwhile, she searched for other jobs, but none fit within her son’s school day. Finally, in mid-February, she landed a full-time job offer at a Home Depot only 15 minutes away, which would give her just enough time to pick him up at the bus stop.

Getting him off to school is still a worry, she said. “I’m working on seeing if I can get my sister to do it. I’m going to the job orientation, and I’m going to take it one day at a time.”

Affordable Housing Maze

With help from a caseworker at Children’s Services of Roxbury, she’s also filling out subsidized housing applications. “The Massachusetts housing system is extremely complex,” Sinner noted. “There are various types of subsidies you have to apply to though various channels. We encourage families to apply for everything in any city where they would be willing to live.”

Cribbs is confused about why she keeps filling out applications when she’s already on a waiting list for a housing voucher she applied for in 2010 after her daughter was born. (As of early February, the Metro Housing Boston website said the agency was currently selecting Section 8 voucher applicants who had applied in October 2008.)

She’s also looking for market rate apartments. The cheapest one she’s found so far was $1,200, but it was a studio and the landlord wouldn’t rent it to a family. (The median rent for a Boston one bedroom is $2,720, according to the rental site Zumper.)

Cribbs dreams of moving to someplace less expensive, like Rhode Island, but that would be tough without a job and childcare lined up, she thinks. And it would mean distancing herself from the support network she has in Boston.

“I get really depressed with living sometimes,” she acknowledged. “But I have two kids to take care of so I just get up and go. I don’t have time to give up no matter how hard I want to.”

Living without a permanent home is hard on her kids, too, she said. “We all suffer from anxiety. My daughter is not excelling in school like she should.”

If the Advance Child Tax Credit was still coming, Cribbs knows exactly what she’d spend it on: rent.