The air sirens have been sounding for some time now. Moms are not well. The parents are not well. The caregivers are not well. And it turns out, neither do the kids. The CDC just released a report with research conducted in 2021 that found that 4 in 10 teens feel “constantly sad or hopeless.” Twenty percent say they are considering suicide.
Unfortunately, a “return to normal” like in-person school and a strong job market probably won’t solve our mental health issues, because it wasn’t so good before the pandemic. The United States Surgeon General points out that in the decade before Covid, mental health and behavioral diagnoses, depression and suicide were all on a steady rise among young people, and before the pandemic, according to the NIH, 1 in 5 in the United States have experienced mental illness. Children do not exist in a vacuum, and the stability and health of their families are closely linked to their well-being. In the recent CDC report, 30% of teens said a parent or caregiver lost their job, and a quarter struggled with not having enough to eat.
Wouldn’t it be a dream to come up with a fast-acting, far-reaching program that would immediately reduce parental stress levels and improve overall family well-being?
An intergenerational mental health crisis seems at first sight too intractable to solve. In a country without universal health care and with sky-high health costs, quality mental health care is out of reach for many. Even for those who can afford it, it’s not easy to get: according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than 119 million Americans live in mental health shortage areas; only 28.1% of needs are regularly met.
Wouldn’t it be a dream to come up with a fast-acting, far-reaching program that would immediately reduce parental stress levels, address some acute situational mental health issues, and improve overall family well-being? Something that could help address some of the underlying causes of children’s mental health issues? Wouldn’t it be amazing if it could reach nearly 61 million children with minimal bureaucratic expenditure? What if we could see overwhelmingly positive results just a month or two into the program?
It is not a dream. It is the impact of the child tax credit program that has been so successful. The program, which expired without renewal from Congress, is set to make its final bittersweet lump sum payment to families in April at tax time.
For six fleeting months, American families enjoyed many benefits through monthly payments. Unlike many social safety net programs, no one had to apply – anyone who filed their taxes electronically automatically received payments in their bank account; the others received a check in the mail. A wide range of people were covered: the majority of families received monthly payments of $250 to $300 per child, while upper-middle-class earners and above received reduced payments. The Niskanen Center, a think tank, predicted that the comprehensive CTC program would boost consumer spending by $27 billion during an economically volatile time, and experts estimate that 3.7 million children were lifted out of poverty during the six months of CTC payments.
An under-explored benefit of the program was an immediate improvement in mental well-being, especially for families in financial difficulty. Advocacy organization Parents Together Action found that 77% of parents surveyed said the monthly CTC made them less anxious about their finances, and 90% said the payments were ‘helpful’ or made a ‘huge difference’. for their family.
As part of my research with New America’s Better Life Lab, I heard from Christina Darling, a single mother of two in New Hampshire. Although she works full time, she has sought forms of public assistance over the years, including housing subsidies and food stamps. This experience was expensive. “That particular level of living near the poverty line is almost traumatic because you spend all that time constantly trying to think through and plan for every possible scenario,” she said. “If, God forbid, the one thing you didn’t plan for is what’s going on – it’s a giant juggling circus and if you drop a ball they all drop quickly.”
Before CTC, unforeseen costs sent it spiraling. Last winter, her son with ADHD lost his winter coat and she struggled to get it. The $550 a month she received provided her with a buffer for things like this and helped her buy a more reliable, fuel-efficient car so she could save money on the gasoline and not worrying about your car not starting every day, a constant source of stress. . She even treated herself occasionally to a massage or hired a babysitter so she could attend cultural events in her town, a significant improvement in her quality of life and mental well-being. “I don’t know how I’ve managed to make the number of years I’ve gone without taking care of myself, as a parent and as a human being,” she said.
When I caught up with Darling in January after the monthly payments stopped, the stress was back. “I really try not to let [my kids] see how constantly terrified I am of finances,” she said.
We know that the types of situations that stimulate the biological response to stress are unstable, unpredictable and uncontrollable situations. Poverty is a perfect storm of all these situations.
Darling wasn’t the only mother I’ve heard of who described her experience of trying to make ends meet as traumatic. Nydia Rivera, a mother of two and administrative assistant in Minnesota, has spent a significant portion of her life juggling bills and dealing with financial unpredictability. Her job is stable, but her husband works in construction, which is seasonal, meaning he makes a good living in the summer, but in the winter he is often laid off and collecting unemployment. Instead of playing a constant game of bills to pay so their accounts don’t get overdrawn, during the CTC months, Rivera experienced the security of paying her family’s bills on time.
“Right now I feel good, but I think maybe I’m just traumatized,” Rivera said at the CTC reception. “And I’m just paranoid the whole time it’s going to come back to this – not having enough.”
The mental health toll of this financial precariousness is real, says Dr. Darby Saxbe, associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern California and director of the USC Center for the Changing Family. “One thing we know from stress research is that the kinds of situations that stimulate the biological stress response are unstable, unpredictable, and uncontrollable situations. Poverty is a bit like a perfect storm of all these situations at once. The response of the brain and the body is to be hypervigilant. If you don’t have that kind of reserve of extra dollars in your savings account in case something goes wrong or a childcare situation arises, those experiences create repeated knocks on the stress response system. and force us to work harder to regulate the return. at the baseline.
The genius of CTC payments was how they were regularly deposited into your bank account without any paperwork or bureaucratic processing. “I think small to medium regular payments on a predictable schedule have more impact than a lump sum,” says Saxbe. “Having money flowing into your account on a regular basis allows you to plan ahead and cover unforeseen expenses.” Knowing that you have this stability can immediately reduce anxiety.
After so much upheaval, bringing the CTC back as a reliable buffer against the unexpected could continue to have positive mental health effects for families of all incomes. The ability to spend CTC on anything provides the flexibility to support overall family well-being. “Parental stress levels are simply unsustainable and inflexible. I say this as a parent of two school-aged children,” Saxbe says. “We’re still playing with this puzzle like, how can we make our lives work when childcare has been so unpredictable and it’s like everything… has already been pushed to the breaking point of being a working parent in a society without many support and safety nets? We were already almost broken and now we just broke.
In addition to paying off student, credit card, and medical debt, I’ve heard of people who used their CTC for higher quality child care that made them feel more secure, investing in 529 to better plan education costs on the road, therapy costs for themselves and their children, karate lessons and special family trips. My family paid for swimming lessons for my toddlers, which will turn summer trips to the community pool from something I dread into something we all look forward to. Let’s be clear – the return of the CLC will not solve all mental health issues or directly provide the courage we all need to continue to survive in the second decade of the 21st century as we face political instability, war, climatic disasters and mass shootings. But it can create a buffer and help eliminate some economic anxieties that add fuel to the fire of our collective mental health issues. Sounds like a really sensible investment to make.
Catherine Goldstein is a freelance journalist and creator of The double shifta Podcast, newsletterand community. Sign up for the newsletter hereabout challenging the status quo of motherhood and the forces that shape family life in America.