Manchin Worries West Virginia Parents Are Wasting the Child Tax Credit on Drugs. Here’s How They’re Actually Spending It
The first time Joanna Vance did oxycontin she was 15 years old. “It was at home, with my grandmother, God rest her soul,” Vance says. The same year, she lost her dad to a fatal overdose on Thanksgiving Day. “My parents used drugs… Everybody used drugs, basically, around us. It was just kind of the culture — when all of the doctors were pushing all of the oxycontin, it flooded the coal towns.”
Vance grew up in the mountains of West Virginia, in Boone County, where roughly a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, and where, every year, 64.6 of every 100,000 people die from prescription drug overdoses — a rate five times the national average. Now in recovery, and a political organizer, she knows as well as anyone the stigma that trails people who have managed to stop using.
Even so, she was stunned, when, during a private meeting earlier this year, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia explained that he was having trouble supporting an extension of the child tax credit after hearing from a constituent who was convinced her “crackhead” daughter was spending the dividend on drugs.
In less than six months, the expanded child tax credit — monthly payments that have been going out to families who make less than $150,000 a year since July — has cut childhood hunger by one-third nationwide, and helped lift at least 3 million American children out of poverty in the first month alone. If the credit were extended, Urban Institute analysts say, the benefit would be even greater, reducing child poverty by a staggering 40 percent in America — the most dramatic improvement in a generation.
But as it stands now, the expansion is set to expire at year’s end, shrinking the size of the tax credit, ending automatic monthly checks, and making it available to fewer families — including to some of the nation’s poorest.
In West Virginia, which consistently ranks as one of the poorest states in the country, the benefit has been supporting 93 percent of families, or 346,000 children, since checks started going out six months ago. Yet Manchin has been one of the credit’s fiercest, and most influential, critics.
At various points this year, Manchin has pushed for a work requirement, an income cap of $60,000 per year — which would slash by 58% the number of West Virginia families who would qualify — or, alternatively, scrapping the benefit altogether. All of that, though, was before Manchin abruptly pulled out of protracted negotiations with Democratic leaders and the White House over the details of a massive infrastructure bill that would have extended the credit.
Manchin’s decision — reportedly motivated by an unremarkable White House press release noting President Biden’s efforts to bridge the “differences” with the West Virginia senator, and protests Manchin is said to have endured outside the houseboat where he lives in D.C. — means that as of January 1, families in West Virginia who have come to count on the monthly supplement, which can be worth up to $3,600 a year for each child under age 6 and $3,000 for kids 6 to 17, will have to rework their budgets and make do without it.
When the tax credit expires later this week, it is expected to drive 50,000 of the lowest-income children in West Virginia back below the poverty line, according to an estimate by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. But with such a high percentage of families benefiting from the credit, its sudden loss will have a broad impact across the state. “You’re not going to find anybody that’s going to tell you that it didn’t help their family,” Vance says.
Vance’s own family used the tax credit to pay off outstanding bills at the pediatrician’s office earlier this year. More recently, she says, “We had COVID, and we were stuck at home in quarantine for two weeks, and my husband only was allotted 40 hours of pay, so it helped us to be able to pay bills.”
Leah Barker is a single mom who lives in Dunbar, West Virginia. Barker’s son, Jayden, a senior in high school, suffers from a chromosomal disease called Russell Silver Syndrome that requires him to wear special orthotic shoes, the cost of which are not covered by insurance. “They are expensive,” Barker says of the shoes, which run about $200 a pair. Receiving the tax credit this year “meant him getting two pairs of shoes instead of one.”
Taylor Beckner has two daughters, aged 3 and 5, in the western-most part of the state. Her husband works nights for West Virginia Courtesy Patrol, the state’s roadside assistance program, and Beckner has been at home with the kids since August, when her grandmother — who had been caring for their daughters — passed away. “Daycare is not an option for us because we can’t afford it,” Beckner says. Her husband’s salary covers their biggest bills, but the credit has helped supplement the household income enough to cover the smaller bills that come throughout the month, she says.
“Vehicle payments, insurance, phone, and that sort of thing,” Beckner says. “If we didn’t need it [immediately], we put it toward Christmas, or school stuff that our daughter needed, or medical trips that weren’t covered by her insurance, so not getting it after January? It’s going to be tough.”
Jessica Greenlief, a mother of two, in Glenville, West Virginia, used the credit to buy a new set of tires for her car. “Normally I would have to make the choice: do I buy Christmas presents, or do I get tires for my car?” The extra bit of money helped ensure that she didn’t have to make the trade off. But, she’s worried about what will happen come January, when her healthcare costs are set to increase — ”my premium is going to be more than my car payment” — and a child care subsidy she’s been receiving is set to expire. “It’s upsetting,” she says. “We’re going to be looking at higher health care premiums, inflation across the board, and then having to pay for child care without the extra supplement.”
Above all else, though, West Virginians who receive the child credit have reported using the money to put food on the table for their families. Surveys by the Census bureau found food was the number one item the tax credit went to, followed by utility bills, clothing, and paying down debt. When the checks started going out in July, analysts found they helped trigger an immediate and significant drop in food insufficiency in the state.
One of the reasons that the tax credit may have had such success at reducing childhood hunger in West Virginia is because, unlike state programs — and to Manchin’s dismay — families were eligible to receive the benefit regardless of decisions they may have made in the past.
West Virginia is one of only a handful of states that still have a lifetime ban on giving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families — cash assistance for the unemployed or very low income — to parents with felony convictions, including drug convictions. Under a new law, even recipients without any criminal history are subject to drug screenings. Until as recently as 2019, West Virginia law also prevented anyone with a felony from receiving SNAP benefits for the rest of their lives. In 2016, an estimated 2,100 West Virginians were denied food stamps because of the ban, which remains in place for specific felonies.
“You’ve got people who have fought to become clean after being in an area where, basically, for years, you were handed pills. They fight to become clean and get their families back together, and then they’re not given any opportunities to make it,” Barker says. “It’s just a devilish circle.”
Whether Manchin wants to acknowledge it or not, there are families in some parts of the state he represents that have struggled or are still struggling with substance use disorder — a fact that Joanna Vance knows that better than anyone.
Four years ago, the day before Christmas Eve, Vance, now 32, lost another friend — one of her closest — to another overdose. “We used to talk about it. Like: ‘Do we know anybody that was ever suffering from substance use disorder that had turned their life around, and was in recovery, and had their kids, and had a job, and a home, and, you know, the normal life?’ And we didn’t know anybody — we couldn’t think of anybody,” she says. She was at his funeral when she made herself a promise. “I decided then: Well, we didn’t ever know anybody, so now I’m going to be somebody that people know… I don’t want anybody else to ever say, ‘I don’t know anybody…’ That’s what really got me into recovery.”
When she met with Manchin earlier this year to talk about the child tax credit, the senator brought up the rise in overdoses in the state. Vance says she tired to impress upon him all of the other reasons why the overdose rate may have increased in West Virginia this past year. “We’re fighting an epidemic upon a pandemic… When the COVID pandemic hit, all of the [addiction support] meetings got shut down. Every single meeting went from in-person to virtual… In a lot of places, they stopped taking people into detox, they stopped taking people into recovery residences… They were kicking people out of recovery residences because they couldn’t follow COVID protocols.”
Manchin, she said, didn’t seem to make much of her argument. “He was like, ‘Well, we’re just going to have to respectfully agree to disagree,’” Vance says.
To the average West Virginian, though, Manchin’s preoccupation with the child tax credit — reducing it, or imposing a means test or a purity test to limit its reach, or getting rid of it entirely because of debt concerns — ignores their lived experience. “If he cared about West Virginians, he would understand where all of us moms are coming from and what we’re trying to get through and get done,” Beckner says.
The other morning, Vance says, she heard Manchin interviewed on a local West Virginia radio station, where he was asked, What do you say to West Virginians who this decision of yours is hurting?
“Senator Manchin went straight into tax code, and numbers, and inflation,” Vance recalls. “West Virginians don’t want to hear that. We want to know what you’re going to do to help. Because we still live here — we live in real West Virginia. We don’t live in mansions, and houseboats, and all that. We live in real West Virginia and all of those numbers that he is talking about? Those are real people to me. Those are real stories, and real lives, people that I see, and talk to, and work around, and organize with every single day.”