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Go big or go home: Let’s cut child poverty again in N.J. | Editorial

“We know, bigger kids, bigger expenses,” Dunn said. “If we truly care about making New Jersey more affordable,” we should “maximize tax relief” to these families.

Our state’s brand-new tax break to help lower income children just kicked in this year with great promise, and now a Republican lawmaker and a progressive think tank are pressing the Legislature to expand it.

Giving families a tax credit of up to $500 per young child when they file their state tax return just isn’t enough, a Republican from Morris County, Aura Dunn, declared in an impassioned speech on the Assembly floor in June: “We can do more.”

Low and middle income families need all the relief they can get, she argued. So why not expand this state benefit to help parents whose kids are above the age of 6, and provide larger credit amounts? After all, the costs don’t end when your kid turns 6.

“We know, bigger kids, bigger expenses,” Dunn said. “If we truly care about making New Jersey more affordable,” we should “maximize tax relief” to these families.

“After all, what are we here for?” she concluded. “We go big, we go bold, or we go home.”

Amen. As Gov. Murphy prepares to present a new annual budget to lawmakers in Trenton, let’s hope they take her message to heart. A federal child tax credit that expired last year cut child poverty by nearly half. Now that New Jersey has stepped up to create a state version, the next logical step is to expand it.

As many as 1 in 10 children live in families that struggle to pay their bills, the think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective reported last year – a rate higher than that of nineteen other states by the same measure, ranking us in line with West Virginia, Indiana and Ohio. For this, we can thank our high cost of living, especially housing costs, which were straining family budgets even before the pandemic hit.

Now high inflation is taking an even bigger bite. So NJPP recently released a proposal that echoes Dunn’s demand: Let’s double the size of the maximum per-child tax credit to $1,000 for parents of kids under age 6. And let’s increase the age limit for the benefit, giving parents with kids under age 12 a $500 per-child credit.

Dunn would have gone even further, but NJPP’s proposal, which could cost an estimated $245 million to enact, is a big investment that lawmakers can build on in future years. Eligibility would remain limited to households earning up to $80,000 annually, giving relief to those who need the most help.

This expansion would benefit about 713,000 additional children, NJPP says, and it’s one of the best investments that government can make because it pays back in dividends. For every dollar spent on a policy like this, the return on investment is 10 times greater, researchers found when they studied the benefit on the federal level.

This is because when low income people get direct relief, they often spend that money immediately, supporting local businesses and jobs. “This money’s not going to sit in someone’s bank account or savings – it’s going to go toward bills and groceries and utilities and housing,” said Louis Di Paolo of NJPP.

It’s also a program that’s easy to administer, he notes. To get this credit, all you have to do is file your taxes and list your child dependents, which helps ensure that eligible families don’t slip through the cracks.

The expanded benefit would give them a little breathing room. Many have two or three kids, and between the mom and dad, half a dozen W2s, says Lynn Weckworth of United Way of Northern New Jersey, who runs a free tax preparation program.

They’re juggling multiple jobs and a weekend gig for DoorDash or UberEats, and still earning a total of under $30,000 a year. Now factor in the rising costs of housing and groceries, which hit poor people the hardest because they have the least disposable income – costs that also make up a larger percentage of their budgets.

“It kind of blows my mind sometimes,” Weckworth said, of how hard these families work and how much they still struggle to get by. The original effort to ease their tax burden passed with bipartisan support last year. Now, let’s go bold and expand it.

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