Pullups for a toddler who is potty training. A bicycle. Clothes that aren't hand-me-downs. A home with heat and working plumbing. A trip to the zoo.
Four in 10 children in the U.S. live in households struggling to afford basic expenses, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Now, as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, the House and Senate have passed a child benefit, the first of its kind in the United States.
It would provide $300 per month per child under age 6, and $250 per month for children over 6, to families making up to $150,000 a year. This benefit, combined with other enhanced benefits in the package, could cut child poverty in the U.S. by half, according to an analysis by Columbia University.
Unlike many benefits aimed at poor children in the United States, this one comes without lots of red tape, time limits or work requirements. The current bill calls for the IRS to send a check every month to families that qualify.
How might such a benefit be spent? Well, the city of Stockton, Calif., recently piloted a program where residents living below the median income received $500 a month with no strings attached. The researchers found they used it for basic necessities, paying down debt and supporting friends and family. And perhaps counterintuitively, recipients were more likely than a control group to start working full time while receiving the payments.
To learn more about what this assistance would really mean, NPR spoke with three mothers about their needs and hopes for their children.
Shewona Ford, 40, St. Louis. Household earnings this past year: about $17,000
Ford has eight children who range in age from 1 to 18. At the beginning of the pandemic, she lost her job at a nursing home, where she made $10 an hour. Then she got a job in a homeless shelter, but she was fired in June for being late because, she says, day cares had closed and she didn't have steady child care.
Ford lives in subsidized housing, paying about $850 a month, but she is facing a nonrenewal of her lease next month. When winter storms and single-digit temperatures hit her city in February, the heat failed and the pipes burst.
She gathered her children into bed for hours to stay warm, turning on '80s sitcoms to pass the time. "I was playing Alf for them, and Small Wonder — all these things that I used to watch with my mom when I was a kid."
When we spoke a few weeks later, the pipes were still broken and they were still boiling their drinking water. Ford saw on the news about the new child benefit and posted it on Facebook with the comment, "Yes, Lord."
The first thing she says she would do when and if the money comes through is move out of the apartment with no heat or hot water and find a place big enough so she and all her children can be together. Some of them have been staying elsewhere, with a relative and a family friend.
Then, she says, the teenagers can help her watch the little ones, and she can get a day job as well as a night job. Her dream is to someday start her own nonprofit, helping the homeless.
Across households, transportation tends to be the second-largest budget item after housing. With the new benefit, Ford would replace her car, which isn't running right now, with a van. Riding the bus to apply for job assistance and child care programs can take all day.
The other day, she said, she had to hitchhike to find a store that had space heaters in stock. "It was bone cold. We could see ourselves talk in the kitchen. We barely could come out of our rooms."
Her monthly grocery bill can easily come to $400, which she uses Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits to pay for. But if she had a little extra, she'd buy everybody their favorite prepared meals, like fried fish.
And her two youngest, a 1-year-old and a 2-year-old, need diapers. "There's a diaper bank, but I don't think they're giving out pullups. And pullups are way higher — like $26.99 for one box — and I have a boy and a girl, so I have to buy two of them."
Ford says she would also like to get the kids some help with their mental health for all that they have been through — homelessness and neighborhood violence. "I'm ready to work on God's kingdom. I'm ready to get myself in line, to get my children back in line. Like, we need counseling, because we have been so hurt so many times."
And she'd like to take the kids to the zoo. She says the younger ones have never been.
Christina Holley, 29, Philadelphia. Household earnings this past year: $40,000
Holley's children are 8, 10 and 12 years old. Her husband works in institutional food service, an essential job that has had longer hours this past year. Holley, meanwhile, got laid off from her job at an indoor children's play space that closed due to the pandemic.
She loved working with children, so losing the job "took a huge toll on more than just our income, but like, how I identified as a person."
Getting another job wasn't easy. The only openings she could find were for front-line positions. Not only was there her kids' remote learning to supervise, but Holley is also a full-time undergraduate at Temple University, studying sociology. "It was a lot dealing with the scheduling with my husband," she says, "let alone putting myself and the children at two times the risk, because both of us would have had to be outside."
But there was a twist: The federal stimulus and enhanced unemployment benefits due to the coronavirus actually gave Holley higher earnings this year than she has ever had in her life. In 2019, as a single mother, she made about $8,000.
And she is really grateful for the extra time she has been able to spend with her children. She was a teenage mother, and she says she has gotten to know her kids in a new way this year.
"I was so stuck on grinding and gaining money and bringing in income that I couldn't find the time or the energy to focus on my children."
With the child benefit, Holley says, the first word that comes to mind is "sovereignty."
She grew up in public housing and says: "A lot of government programs make you prove your poverty. They make you jump through hoops. If this could come with dignity, and the basic understanding that this is the baseline of what people need to survive, this is something that people shouldn't have to, like, fight for," the new benefit, she says, would help in both abstract and concrete ways. "I think that it would allow for me to continue to have the time that I need to develop not only as a mother, but as a professional woman." She wants to finish her undergraduate degree and work in higher education administration.
She has affordable Internet access for the kids' schooling, but it has been unreliable, so she'd like to upgrade. And her kids need some social outlets. With the long months of isolation, "my kids are socially damaged, you know, like just really broken."
Her daughter wants to try gymnastics. And she would like to replace her son's bicycle, which was stolen. Bicycle prices have risen during the pandemic, she notes: "$250 or $300 is not something we can do right now."
Antonia Gonzalez-Caro, 38, Moxee, Wash. Household earnings this past year: about $55,000-$65,000
Gonzalez-Caro left her job as a high school teacher when her younger son was born in June. "It was maternity leave, and also the coronavirus — I was going to take just one term [off], but it's all this crazy stuff." She is going back to teach this month.
Her husband works putting up drywall, but shifts have been erratic during the pandemic, which makes it hard to estimate their income. In any case, getting by on one income has been hard; they've gone through their $12,000 savings and borrowed $6,000 from her parents. Their mortgage payment is $1,500 a month; her husband's truck, which he needs for work, is about $700 a month.
Grocery prices are up these days: minimum $400 a month. They put about $3,000 on the credit card last month.
With the child benefit, Gonzalez-Caro says her first priority would be to pay back the debt to her parents. She would love to get some sports equipment for her older son, who just turned 4. "He loves soccer, he loves baseball, he can do pretty much any sport."
She wants to get the baby a new stroller; the one she has was passed down from her sister, and she'd love to have one that they could take on a hike.
And she'd like to get them both at least a few outfits that aren't hand-me-downs. "I was lucky that one of my sister's kids is a little bit older than mine. So I'll be honest with you, I haven't really bought any new clothes for my kids."
She's worried that strangers might judge her for having the kids in old clothes, especially now that the boys are going to go back to day care: "I don't want to think about the prejudice of people, but ... it's tough."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
How much would an extra $250 or $300 a month per child help struggling families? The Senate passed a child benefit that's the first of its kind in the U.S. as part of President Biden's COVID relief plan. NPR's Anya Kamenetz talked to three mothers across the country to find out what this money would mean.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Last month, a winter storm swept St. Louis. Shewona Ford and her children were left with no heat.
SHEWONA FORD: It was bone cold in here. Like, we could see ourselves talk in the kitchen. We barely could come out of our rooms.
KAMENETZ: The family huddled in bed watching old '80s TV shows to pass the time.
FORD: Me and my kids sat in the bed for long, and I just kept on playing "ALF" for them and "Small Wonder." And so I thought I'd show them the things that I used to watch when I was a kid with my mom.
KAMENETZ: Ford lives in subsidized housing. She has eight children ranging in age from 1-year-old to 18. She's not working right now. At her most desperate, she says, she has shoplifted to provide for them.
FORD: I was homeless, and I was jobless. And I would pick up things out of the store that I had no business doing. But I still was a nonviolent person. I just wanted to make sure my kids ate or they had clean underwear.
KAMENETZ: One in 7 children in the United States are growing up in poverty, and 70% of them are children of color. The pandemic has pushed a disproportionate number of Black and Latina women, as well as single mothers, out of the workforce. In fall 2020, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found 4 out of every 10 children in the United States lived in households struggling to afford the basics.
In Moxee, in Washington state, Antonia Gonzalez-Caro, a teacher, hasn't worked since her younger son was born. He's now 9 months old.
ANTONIA GONZALEZ-CARO: So right now, things are a little bit tough just living on one income.
KAMENETZ: Her husband puts up drywall, but the work has been erratic.
GONZALEZ-CARO: Throughout the months, he's been working sometimes two weeks, three weeks. This past month, he only worked one day per week.
KAMENETZ: They've spent down their savings and borrowed money from her parents to get by. Gonzalez-Caro says if she had a monthly child benefit, she would pay down that debt and get a new stroller so the family can go hiking.
GONZALEZ-CARO: My sister passed it on to me, and so it's not in good shape. So that's one thing that I want to buy.
KAMENETZ: Christina Holley in Philadelphia is also getting by on one income.
CHRISTINA HOLLEY: My job laid me off. I needed to get another job. I couldn't get one without risking my life.
KAMENETZ: She's a junior at Temple University studying sociology and a mother of three. The indoor play space where she was working shut down at the beginning of the pandemic. She said the only other opening she could find were in front-line positions. But her husband is already an essential worker in food service, and someone had to supervise the children's remote school.
HOLLEY: I think that that was like a rock and a hard place kind of situation. Like, I felt like I didn't really have a choice.
KAMENETZ: Holley says if she got a child benefit, she would spend the extra money on social opportunities for her kids - gymnastics for her youngest daughter, a bicycle for her older son, maybe music lessons. She said she's loved spending this time with her children, but the isolation has been really hard on them.
HOLLEY: I'm realizing that, you know, we've had the luxury of the time together but also that my kids are socially damaged, you know, like, just really broken.
KAMENETZ: Among all rich countries, the United States has been in second-to-last place for how much of its budget it spends on children. Since welfare reform passed in 1996, family benefits have gotten scarcer and come with a lot more red tape and work requirements. Holley has lived this. She grew up in public housing and was a teenage mother.
HOLLEY: A lot of government programs do - they make you prove your poverty. They make you jump through hoops. They make you reapply.
KAMENETZ: In her sociology classes, Holley's been reflecting on what it would mean to have a child benefit.
HOLLEY: If this could come with dignity and the basic understanding that this is the baseline of what people need to survive - this isn't something that people have to fight for in a way.
KAMENETZ: How might families spend that guaranteed check? Well, recently, the city of Stockton, Calif., piloted a program where residents living below the median income got $500 a month, no strings attached. They found that the recipients spent the money on basic necessities, paid down debt and helped support friends and family. And they were more likely than a control group to start working full time while receiving the money.
In St. Louis, Shewona Ford told me she posted on Facebook about the child benefit with the comment, yes, Lord. Finally, she could have all her children live with her. Right now, some are staying with family and friends. If they were all together, she says, her teenagers could help with child care.
FORD: That way, I could work two part-time jobs. If I have to, I can work early mornings and late nights, and late nights, the little kids can go upstairs with the big kids.
KAMENETZ: And she wants to get her children into counseling because she says they've been hurt so many times.
Anya Kamenetz, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.