As pandemic squeezes budgets, Georgia families lean on child tax credit checks

Payments help autistic child get therapy, family avoid eviction, couple cope with job loss, mother pay bills

After being homeless, Tameka Willis-Stinson was elated when she was admitted into an affordable housing program in Atlanta. She saw the move as a turning point, an opportunity to create a stable atmosphere for her children, between ages 7 and 19, including two sets of twins.

At times, though, she wonders how much of a good thing it was.

After her water bill went through the roof, the city water department promised to send inspectors to examine for a possible water leak. While the affordable housing program covers her rent and electricity, it’s on her to cover the outstanding balance on her water bill, now at $3,000.

Only recently has she been able to whittle it down.

“I make sure I pay my water,’' she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “You got to when you have nine lives depending on you.”

Amid a pandemic, there’s often little consolation for those enduring extreme hardship, especially families with young children. However, to ease some of those challenges, the federal government this year enhanced the federal child tax credit.

Under the American Rescue Act, the program was broadened to include most families, including the poorest of the poor, who haven’t been eligible before because they didn’t earn enough to file taxes. And instead of making families wait until tax time to get the money, the government offered them immediate help: monthly payments of up to $300 per child for the remainder of the year.

ExploreComplete coverage of COVID-19 in Georgia

Hundreds of thousands of Georgia families are receiving the payments. So far, payments to those families have totaled more than $1 billion, according to data from the U.S. Treasury Department.

Among the recipients are Tameka Stinson, who has long battled with poverty; Courtney and Kasey Crews, a south Georgia couple who had an unexpected pregnancy as his business was struggling; Billy and Katie Sanchez, of the Augusta area, who fought an eviction notice while the virus gripped their son; and Jack and Tiffany Stewart of Savannah, who amid the lockdown saw his business shut down.

Each of the families agreed to talk with the AJC about the impact of the payments on their lives. All spoke of a deep sense of gratitude for the payments, which unlike other aid programs come without a lot of strings attached. The federal government did not set a requirement for how the money could be used. As a result, parents can use the money at their discretion and based on their household needs.

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The Georgia families used the checks to pay utility bills and back rent, buy groceries and school supplies and cover other expenses. A survey by the U.S. Census found a similar trend nationwide, with the money most often going to buy food, clothing, and school supplies, pay for housing and child care and to reduce debts. Even after one check, surveys found that families were less likely to report food insufficiency.

As a result, the tax credits been characterized as the most impactful anti-poverty effort by the federal government in half a century, expected to lift roughly 40% of children out of poverty. That may have particular significance in Georgia, where nearly a half million — one of every five children — live in poverty.

“It is working, and it doesn’t take that much,” said Francine Lipman, a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who specializes in justice in tax. “It is feeding kids so they can be healthier, pay attention better in school and so they don’t have physical or emotional or mental challenges from the stress of poverty.”

As she prepared to send off her children to school last month, Tameka Stinson was among those who saw an immediate impact.

“Kids always needs shoes, clothes, toiletries and stuff,’' Stinson said. “So the child tax credit helps.”

An unexpected baby

After a painful miscarriage, 31-year-old Courtney Crews knew she wanted to try again. But she and her husband, Kasey, 33, a poultry farmer in south-central Georgia, were uncertain about the timing.

In April 2020, though, as governments issued lockdowns, Courtney learned she was pregnant. “I did not plan for the pandemic,” she said. “Otherwise, it would have been a little different.”

Courtney was put in a high-risk category because of her previous miscarriage and a complication that arose during the pregnancy: Her placenta became detached from the uterine wall.

Other significant hardships and worries piled up.

After businesses and schools shut down, Courtney, a bank marketing manager, had to work from home with two children: Kason, now 7, and Kinsley, 3. “Childcare was hard to find when you have schools that are closed, but you are still a working parent. We had a lot of issues there, and we couldn’t have paid anybody to come to the house.”

She was particularly concerned about Kason, who was diagnosed with autism when he was 4. After undergoing extensive therapies, Kason was developing nicely, using six- and seven-word sentences and improving vastly on his social skills. Now that he couldn’t go to therapy, she worried he would backslide on his achievements.

Adding to the pressure: Courtney carried the entire family on her employer’s health insurance because her husband is self-employed and not self-insured.

ExploreFrom March: Major aid for families in Rescue Act could slash Georgia poverty rate

Meanwhile, the family’s poultry farming operation ―started by her husband two years before the pandemic — was also under pressure. As virus outbreaks hit poultry workers, chicken processing plants had to abruptly reduce output. As plants slowed operations, farmers like Kasey had to hold chickens longer, adding to the cost of housing, feed, water, heat, electricity and other upkeep for the birds.

Another worry: In December, as Georgia braced for some of the worst days of the pandemic, Kasey’s mother was fighting COVID-19 and had to be hospitalized. Meanwhile, around the same time, the Crews’ youngest, Collin, was born. Thankfully, the baby was healthy and Kasey’s mother recovered.

When checks for the expanded child tax credit checks started arriving in July, the Crews decided to divide each child’s share into a separate savings accounts. The funds have been set aside to support therapy sessions for Kason. Each 30-minute speech sessions costs $40. “Add that a couple of times a week throughout the whole month and it’s a lot,” Courtney said.

“It is working, and it doesn't take that much. It is feeding kids so they can be healthier, pay attention better in school and so they don't have physical or emotional or mental challenges from the stress of poverty."

- Francine Lipman, a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who specializes in justice in tax

The couple managed to set aside money for future expenses, possibly college for 3-year-old Kinsley.

They don’t know what the future will bring for the baby, Collin, who is now nearly 9 months old and is on track developmentally. But in case there is need for some form of intervention, the couple put Collin’s share of the tax credit in a savings account.

Meanwhile, the pandemic’s latest surge has left the family bracing for whatever happens. That could be a job loss, Courtney Crews said, or the closure of her husband’s poultry operation. The couple’s goal is to try to save and to keep expenses at a minimum.

“It’s frustrating for a lot of folks that we have to live in this scary time, and I think now we’re at the point as a family that we’re still so unsure of what’s going to happen next.”

A looming eviction

Less than a week after school started, Jackie Sanchez, 16, was sent home to quarantine after being exposed to a Columbia County student who tested positive for the coronavirus.

Jackie’s mother, 35-year-old Katie, dreaded a repeat of last fall, when she and her 13-year-old asthmatic son, Will, were sick with the coronavirus, and her husband, though testing negative, came down with some unexplainable symptoms. She also worried that their youngest daughter, 7-year-old Josi, who doesn’t have access to a vaccine because she is too young, would be infected.

“I don’t know if I can handle another go-around in the household,” she said.

During the pandemic, the Augusta-area family of five has struggled not only with infection and illness from the virus but also workplace injury, job loss and the potential of eviction.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

In March 2020, just as the first virus cases were reported in Georgia, husband Billy Sanchez, who is 38, was diagnosed with a condition that caused him to lose muscle strength in his left hand.

As a result, he couldn’t work his landscaping job for an entire month. That put pressure on his wife, who handles debt collections for an emergency healthcare provider, to keep the house afloat.

The family was grateful for the stimulus checks that arrived during the early days of the pandemic, using them to help cover his medical bills and physical therapy. But challenges kept surfacing. Billy, who is a diabetic, had to reduce his work hours because of his hand condition, and the family teetered on eviction when it fell behind on rent payments.

Who is eligible for child tax credits

An estimated 39 million U.S. households are eligible for the expanded child tax credit. In addition to low-income families, individual taxpayers earning up to $75,000 and married couples filing jointly and earning up to $150,000 receive the full amounts. Above those amounts, the payments start to phase out.

The program provides annual payments of $3,000 per child ages 6 to 17 and $3,600 per child for children ages 5 and younger.

Families who elect to do so can receive half of the total credit in installments delivered each month. Those with children ages 5 and younger receive $300 per month per child, while those with children 6 to 17 can receive $250 per child.

The payments continue until the end of the year. Families then can receive the remainder of the credit when they file taxes in the spring.

At one point, Katie turned to Legal Aid of Georgia, when the landlord decided not to renew the lease and notified her that he wanted to put the house up for sale. At that time, though, the household was protected by a federal eviction moratorium, and the landlord agreed to allow the family to stay in the home until the end of summer, so long as they could catch up on their rent.

Katie Sanchez used a portion of her child tax credit payments — $750 for three children over 5 — to help bring her rent balance down to zero. Money also went to cover other household expenses, including food, she said.

“Had they not done something like that, not only for me but all the millions of families who have actually lost their jobs or didn’t have a job to go to, where would we all be as of now?”

The family won’t be in the clear, though, until both parents have steady employment — and that means the threat of the virus needs to go away, she said.

“It’s hard not knowing what’s going on because of all of this‚’’ she said. “All of this is very stressful.”

Re-thinking their lives

When COVID-19 hit, Jack Stewart had to close shop.

Within hours of a citywide emergency lockdown order, the barber alerted his shop’s landlord, customers, the utility company, internet provider, his wife and their 11-year-old daughter to the sad reality: After 25 years, he was no longer able to provide hair and grooming-related services in Savannah.

“It can be frustrating for a self-employed person to go from having a consistent income to zero immediately,’’ said his wife, Tiffany Stewart. “He had 48-hour notice. He told me, ‘I’m used to going to work because this is what I do, I take care of my family. I take care of my shop.’ "

Amid the financial uncertainty, the Stewarts, who are in their mid-40s, decided to make dramatic changes.

Before the pandemic, the couple barely had time to have long discussions. Tiffany left early in the morning for a full-time job as the human resources director for Chatham Emergency Services. The barber fit his schedule to meet the needs of his clients, who usually wanted appointments in the late afternoons and evenings.

Tiffany and Jack’s paths rarely crossed as they dashed to cover their jobs and their responsibilities as parents of their sixth-grader, Meghan.

The pandemic changed that.“ We were having those conversations we couldn’t have because we were gone all the time,’’ Tiffany Stewart said.

One talk: What to do about the house where they were living. Jack Stewart and his brothers grew up in the 1,350-square foot Savannah home. The couple had moved in years ago, after his parents passed away.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

In recent years, the couple had talked about moving. Instead, they decided to renovate.

They started small, breaking up the work into manageable projects, so they didn’t get upside down on the renovations, she said. Fears of being short crept in: “If something happens or I get sick or have to shutdown or have no income while we’re starting a project, there was some apprehension.

“We didn’t know how far we were going to get with the project financially.” she said. “We only had a certain amount of money.”

Once it sunk in that the household would be short a solid income, the family also clamped down on most expenses — what Tiffany described as “frivolous spending.”

She focused on the essentials, such as food, utilities and other household expenses, and made it a habit to pack her lunch for work. They planned no out-of-town trips and rarely went out for dinner. “I got re-acquainted with my stove,” she said.

She also decided to donate 75% of her personal belongings, which she delivered in bags to charities and homeless shelters around the city. “We really changed our way of life.”

The family also decided to allow their daughter to try another extracurricular activity, such as swimming, after doing gymnastics for many years. That saved up to $6,000 a year in club membership, uniforms and competition travel.

When a $250 check arrived as part of the child tax credit, the family plowed it back into covering household expenses.

“We took it as additional funds to do things we needed to do around the house,” said Tiffany, who is also a pastor at Walking By Faith Ministry in Savannah.

“Hopefully, this is about families being better stewards over their finances and hopefully this has helped people prioritize things,’’ she said.

Surviving poverty

A year before the coronavirus hit, the Stinson family moved from Nicholas House, a temporary shelter, into affordable housing in Atlanta’s Grove Park neighborhood west of downtown. Almost as soon as they got settled, though, they experienced new threats to their vulnerable lives.

The area was racked by crimes, and as the pandemic raged the family lost friends to gun violence and family members to COVID-19.

Adding to the family’s stress, around Father’s Day, Tameka Stinson said, her husband, the father of all the children but the eldest. was booked into Fulton County Jail for violating terms of a probation on a charge of aggravated assault. He is scheduled to be released Sept. 14, she said.

About this story

To try to measure the impact of the federal child tax credits, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sought to talk with families in various parts of Georgia about how they have used the extra cash during these tough times. The AJC asked the families about their primary financial struggle during the pandemic; how they used the extra cash; and how their families fared.

Tameka, who is 40, hasn’t worked in order to take care of her youngest children, which include 7-year-old twins, as well as her husband, who is on medication for epilepsy and schizophrenia.

The city’s affordable housing program keeps the roof over their heads and covers electricity. Stinson also receives food benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

The extra $750 a month in tax credits she receives for three children also helps the family to get by. Five more of her children should qualify, however, Tameka said she hasn’t been able to launch the online federal tax portal to update her information. Critics had warned that the IRS portal was too complex and created a barrier for low-income Americans.

However, the payments Tameka has received allowed her to chip away at the water bill, buy some clothes for the children and re-stock household supplies, like tissue and toilet paper.

She said it would satisfy her to use some money to give each child a small allowance.

“I want them to be able to go buy something when they want to, so it could be for themselves; they don’t have to share with anyone, it just be theirs,” she said. “They know I don’t have a lot of money and they know their father don’t, but every now and then they get a couple of dollars just to have. I feel I am able to do that now with the tax credit.”