VT Digger: Tax credits crucial to low-income families' survival

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(Original Post)

by Opinion | November 20, 2012

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Hal Cohen, the executive director of Central Vermont Community Action Agency.

With the election over and Congress back to work, a vote of great importance to Vermont’s low- and middle-income working families will be coming soon. We’ve all heard about the end-of-the-year fiscal cliff when automatic spending cuts are set to kick in and the 2001/2003 Bush tax cuts will expire, potentially sending the economy off the deep end — again. There is a lot at stake and working families stand to lose the most if Congress fails to preserve several key policies. We can’t let that happen.

The most responsible thing to do would be to allow the tax cuts for the richest among us to expire and extend tax breaks for those making less than $250,000. And, central to any agreement on taxes, is the continuation of the improvements in the refundable tax credits – the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit – made in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) legislation. This past summer, extensions of these credits passed the Senate, but failed in the House leaving it to the current lame duck session to work out a compromise.

It is difficult for me to imagine why the House would not support credits that reward work at a time when so many families continue to struggle These improvements almost exclusively help working people who earn $50,000 or less and have helped push back against the stagnant wages and reduced opportunity facing low-income families who are trying hard to do the right thing to take care of their families.

The EITC and CTC have also prevented millions of families from falling into poverty during this very challenging economic time. In 2010, these two credits kept close to 5 million children out of poverty – just less than 1 million of whom were helped specifically by the 2009 improvements.

According to Citizens for Tax Justice, in New England, an estimated 344,485 families, with 635,081 children would be adversely impacted if these credits are allowed to expire. And in Vermont, 16,682 families, with 29,348 children, would lose a total of $11.6 million. The average loss per Vermont family would be $696.

We have seen them forced to supplement their food budgets at food shelves in order to feed their families. We know that, after paying for essentials, there is little or nothing left for car repairs, clothing, dental care and many other important expenses.

Vermont families have been hit hard by the recession and economic recovery has been slow. In 2010, 17 percent of Vermont’s children were poor — a 13 percent increase from 2005. Nationally, the figures are sobering. According to the most recent Census date, in 2011, the share of Americans living in poverty held at 15 percent while the share of children in poverty hit 22.5 percent – the highest level in nearly two decades.

Those of us who work at community action agencies throughout the state know the families who will benefit from these tax credits. We have watched them struggle during the last few years. We have seen them forced to supplement their food budgets at food shelves in order to feed their families. We know that, after paying for essentials, there is little or nothing left for car repairs, clothing, dental care and many other important expenses.

We are a pleased, of course, that Vermont’s entire congressional delegation voted in favor of the extension, and we support Rep. Welch and Sens. Sanders and Leahy in their quest to improve the economic circumstances of our Vermont middle- and low-income families.

It is past time for Congress to step up and invest in working families by extending tax cuts for those making less than $250,000 per year, including essential refundable tax credits for low- and middle-income families. In these challenging economic times it is even more critical that we work to advance policies that make the well-being of children and their families a priority and that do not push greater numbers of children and families into poverty. A majority of voters nationally and in Vermont demonstrated their support of President Obama’s plan. It is now time for Congress to implement these proposals for the sake of our struggling Vermont families.