It has been one year since the first COVID-19 case was diagnosed in the United States. The pandemic has taken a significant toll on our families and children during that time, with increases in child poverty, hunger, depression, anxiety, and educational disruption. Below we summarize three pieces of legislation that are intended to directly help those families hardest hit by the pandemic.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021

The Consolidated Appropriations Act was signed into law on December 27, 2020. Below are some of the key child welfare provisions included in the Act.

Educational supports

The Consolidated Appropriations Act provides funding for public child welfare agencies and Institutions of higher education to address the needs of foster youth. Specifically, this Act includes the Supporting Foster Youth and Families through the Pandemic Act (H.R.7947), which provides an additional $50 million dollars for Education and Training Voucher (ETV) programs and raises the yearly award amount from $5,000 to $12,000 per youth until September 30, 2022. There is now more flexibility in what ETV can be used for, and youth no longer need to maintain satisfactory academic progress to receive the award. Additionally, if youth are unable to enroll in postsecondary education due to COVID-19, they may still be eligible for ETV funding. The age limit for ETV funding is now 27 through October 1, 2021.

Additionally, the Act increases the maximum Pell grant award to $6,495 (previously $6,345). The provision allows incarcerated students to receive Pell grants, greatly simplifies the FAFSA form, and forgives $1.3 billion in loans made to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

There will be a 100 percent federal match for Chafee and ETV appropriations.

Preventing aging out of foster care during the pandemic

If a foster youth ages out of care during the pandemic, H.R.7947 stipulates they cannot be required to leave foster care simply due to their age, nor can they be denied voluntary re-entry into care. Youth must be notified of the option to return to care if they aged out during 2020-2021 and will continue to be eligible for foster care payments. This provision extends to September 30th, 2021.

Transportation assistance

The Act also appropriates up to $500,000 for states to implement driving and transportation programs for foster youth. Funds may be used for youth over age 15 to pay for licenses, insurance costs, and assistance purchasing a vehicle. This section may be beneficial for youth who need transportation assistance and are unable to use their ETV or other financial aid funding for this purpose.

Housing

Another provision in the appropriations bill will assist youth aging out of the foster care system. Public housing agencies that provide timely assistance to eligible youth, including those who aged out of foster care, are eligible for assistance through this provision. If a youth is complying with certain housing programs, they can have their housing assistance extended for up to 24 months.

The Act also waives limitations on the amount of funds allowed for housing assistance. States can now use more than 30 percent of Federal allotment for room and board payments. It expands eligibility for room and board payments to all former foster youth aged 18 and older who have experienced foster care after age 14, even if they did not age out of care. These eligibility requirements apply until September 30, 2021.

$5 million is also aimed toward expanding housing units for elderly caregivers of children.

Court improvements

A total of $85 million in emergency aid will go towards the Marylee Allen Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program. $10 million of these funds will be invested in technology, training on remote hearings, and programs to help prevent delays during family legal proceedings related to COVID-19. $500,000 of these funds are reserved for Tribal court improvements.

Title IV-E Prevention Programs

The Title IV-E Prevention Services Clearinghouse will receive $2.75 million. The Clearinghouse oversees research and services providing support to children and families to prevent foster care placements.

This Act temporarily waives the evidence-based requirement for Kinship Navigator programs during the COVID-19 pandemic, and programs will receive a 100% federal reimbursement. $20 million in additional funding will be dispersed for direct service to kinship caregivers, access to information and resources for necessities, access to technology, health care assistance, and more.

Other supports for children and families

Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education) will receive an additional $50 million. The Project creates a partnership between state educational agencies and state mental health agencies to increase awareness and training regarding mental health issues among school-aged youth. Additionally, the project helps connect children and their families to needed mental health services.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network will also receive additional funding. The act provides $10 million for the Network, which aims to raise the standard of care and increase access to services for children and families who have experienced traumatic events. 

Virtual visits for home visiting programs will be considered the same as in-person visits to continue providing higher levels of safety for employees and families. Funding for programs can be used for training on virtual visits and other emergency supports for families.

The American Rescue Plan

President Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package includes many provisions to directly benefit children and families struggling during the pandemic. The American Rescue Plan passed the U.S. House of Representatives on March 10, 2021.

Education

Schools will receive $128 billion towards efforts to safely reopen. An additional $39 billion in funding will be provided to institutes of higher education to afford student up to $1,700 in additional financial assistance from their college.

Employment

An additional $300 weekly supplement ($1,200 per month) will be implemented for unemployment insurance and would extend through September 6th, 2021. Additionally, the first $10,200 in unemployment benefits are tax exempt for households making less than $150,000 AGI.

Cash benefits

An additional $1,400 per person will be distributed in stimulus checks, with expanded eligibility to adult dependents and other mixed status households. Single tax filers who made $75,000 or less in adjusted gross income (AGI) for tax year 2019 or 2020 are eligible, and head of households are eligible if they made $112, 500 or less. Additionally, if a couple filed jointly, they will receive $2,800 if their AGI was $150,000 or less. The new stimulus payment may also include adult dependents, such as students, disabled individuals, or the elderly.

The Child Tax Credit will be made fully refundable for the year, in addition to being increased to $3,000 annually per child ages 6-17 and $3,600 for children under the age of 6. 17-year-olds will qualify as children under the tax credit. A fully refundable credit allows families to be eligible for the full $3,000 or $3,600, even if their tax credit exceeds their taxes owed. The IRS will work towards implementing a payment plan for the tax credit so that families can begin receiving up to $300 per child, per month from July to December 2021, and families will be able to claim the remaining credit on their 2021 tax returns. Individuals are eligible if they make up to $75,000 annually, or $150,000 for married couples filing jointly.

Housing

The act includes $27 billion for rental housing assistance, including emergency rental assistance, emergency vouchers, tribal housing needs and rural housing. $5 billion will be allotted to assist those experiencing homelessness, domestic violence or human trafficking Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) will receive $4.5 billion to help families cover heating and cooling costs.

Child care

An Emergency Stabilization Fund will provide $15 billion to support childcare providers and ensure child-care centers can safely remain open during the pandemic.

Food

The Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program will increase benefits by up to $35 per month for four months. $1.4 billion in funding is available for programs for low-income seniors, including the Commodity Supplemental Food Program and the National Family Caregiver Support Program.

Proposed Legislation: The Family Security Act

The Family Security Act was introduced on February 4, 2021. The Act would replace the Child Tax Credit (CTC) and instead provide a monthly benefit for families of $350 per month for each young child and $250 per month for each school-aged child through the Social Security Administration (SSA). The benefit would be available for expecting parents in mid-pregnancy. The act will also reform the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), simplifying a larger family benefit that is not based on the number of dependents, making it easier for families to claim the correct credit. No family will earn less than the EITC in its current form. The bill is estimated to lift nearly three million children out of poverty without adding to the federal deficit. It proposes eliminating TANF.

We would also like to thank Amanda Saxton, MSWc/MPAc, for contributing to this article.