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A new study from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) explores some of the positive influences of tax credits on child wellbeing as policymakers debate whether to expand them.

The study, published this month, found significant drops in reported child maltreatment cases in the weeks after families received federal child and earned income tax credits. During the pandemic, tax credits helped lift millions of families out of poverty.

These findings are relevant as Congress debates whether to expand the child tax credits that were put in place in 2021 as a form of coronavirus pandemic relief. In the last six months of that year, the advance credit provided $250 to $300 each month directly to families.

The AAP study used broad child maltreatment data from the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect (the data encompasses physical, emotional and sexual abuse as well as neglect). An estimated 1 in 4 children experience child abuse or neglect at some point in their lives, and poverty has long been associated with an increased likelihood of child maltreatment.

Researchers at the University of Washington looked at the rate of suspected child maltreatment cases in 48 states and D.C. over three years, including two years before and one year after the 2017 effective date of the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act. The law expanded certain tax credits, but, in a trade-off, also gave the IRS more time to process returns, in order to eliminate fraud. That delay was one focus of the AAP study, which examined the number of suspected child maltreatment cases over several years in the weeks after individuals received child tax credits and earned income tax credits.

Before the PATH Act went into effect, researchers noted that the number of child maltreatment cases declined during the first six weeks of the tax season, when payments were issued. After the PATH Act, with payment of earned income tax credits delayed until late February — week seven of the tax season — researchers observed a similar dip in child maltreatment, but now corresponding to the delayed timeline.

Both before and after the enactment of the PATH Act, the rate of reported cases declined the most three weeks after families received the tax credits, with around 7 fewer child maltreatment cases per 100,000 children. The more families received in child and income tax credits, the fewer maltreatment cases were reported.

The study also found that for every $1,000 families received in tax credits per child, the rate of abuse cases declined by an estimated 5 percent. On average, there were 67 child maltreatment cases reported per 100,000 children each week across the country during the three years of the study.

Even though the tax credits were not designed to reduce child abuse, the study is a good example of how public policy can affect a variety of issues, said Ali Rowhani-Rahbar, a professor of epidemiology and pediatrics at the University of Washington and one of the authors of the study.

“We should really focus more on social policies and programs that may have a bearing on violence prevention,” said Rowhani-Rahbar. “Many of these social programs actually have a spillover affect that really has an impact on those risk and protective factors for different forms of violence. Here we were talking about child abuse, but it also applies to many other forms of violence. So, you hope that both pediatricians, policymakers and community leaders take these results seriously.”

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