Newliz Hernandez remembers the moment she realized she couldn’t go back to work. It was spring 2020, and like millions of other people, she had been laid off. She had been working part time as a teacher’s assistant at an off-site location of her daughter’s preschool, so their schedules were perfectly aligned. When she got off of work, she would pick up Fatima, who’s 4, from her classroom, and they would walk home to their apartment on the Lower East Side. But then, almost overnight, COVID-19 made her Fatima’s primary caretaker.
Hernandez’s mother usually watched Fatima during the day, but Hernandez was concerned about spreading the virus. And though her partner’s job had briefly paused, it hadn’t stopped. He worked long days in construction with unpredictable hours. Hernandez couldn’t pick up gig work or find another part-time job; she couldn’t work at all.
So began a constantly changing “mathematical journey” for Hernandez and her partner. It could shift month to month or even week to week. While she was eligible for unemployment after she lost her job, she began receiving benefits only after the $600 federal add-on expired, and her unemployment amounted to just $192 a week. In March of this year, Congress agreed on a $300 extension, but a few months later, Hernandez said she inexplicably stopped receiving the weekly payments. She hasn’t received any deposits since June. Hernandez’s family managed to cut costs here and there: Sometimes they got free groceries and hot meals from food pantries and local community organizations. Aside from skipping cable payments for three months, Hernandez and her partner were able to pay their bills. But in order for Hernandez to return to work — she hoped to eventually start a nine-to-five — she needed to find child care and come up with a couple thousand dollars to afford it.
On one of the first proper fall days in early October, I met Hernandez to pick up Fatima from preschool at Educational Alliance’s Manny Cantor Center. As we turned down Essex Street, Hernandez, 37, told me she’d recently begun a job search in earnest after being home with Fatima for the past year and a half. She had been receiving monthly payments from the extended child tax credits since July, which meant she now had an extra $300 every month to help take care of Fatima. The monumental program, included in March’s COVID-relief package, is the closest thing to guaranteed income for families with children the United States has ever seen — even if it does not become permanent.
When Hernandez heard about the policy, she realized the timing was perfect. Fatima was going back to preschool in September — at no cost to Hernandez and her partner thanks to New York City’s universal pre-K program — and the money from the tax credits would help pay for after-school day care, which ends at 5 p.m. instead of 3. Suddenly full-time work seemed possible again. The extra two hours a day of child care added up to about $2,200 a year, just a few hundred dollars more than what Hernandez and her partner would make from the CTC money in 2021. (The cost of pre-K and after-school care at the Manny Cantor Center can be far below the city average since the organization offers tuition-based options for families.) Hernandez transferred the payments right into her savings account, and Fatima began the after-school program in mid-September.
And so what was in theory a familiar back-to-school scene — a parent on her way to pick up her child from day care — felt special and rare to Hernandez. Though she wasn’t back to work yet, the extra hours without Fatima had given her more time to reach out to old contacts and browse job boards. “Before I would blink and it would be three o’clock,” she said.
After we filled out COVID-screening forms outside the Manny Cantor Center, we went up to Fatima’s classroom, where she was playing with magnetic tiles with a handful of other children in masks. “Wow!” Fatima exclaimed when she saw her mom, reaching up to touch Hernandez’s long, dark hair. “I know,” Hernandez laughed. “I washed it today.”
Over the course of several months, the extended child tax credits have transformed millions of American families. In August, just a month after parents received the first payment, the United States Census Bureau reported that the extra money had already resulted in a significant dip in the national hunger rate, bringing it down from 11 percent to 8 percent. The first payment reduced the overall child-poverty rate by 25 percent, according to CNBC, a difference of about 3 million children. About 10 percent of families — and 17 percent of families with a child under 5 — spent their tax credits on child care like Hernandez and her partner.
While many employers have blamed unemployment benefits for so-called work shortages, Americans cited child-care obligations as the top reason they were not returning to work. Women were hit hardest by pandemic job losses, and many mothers were forced to leave employment to care for children and other family members. Women lost 5.4 million jobs, according to the Center for American Progress, and in September, a MetLife poll found that roughly two in three women were trying to reenter the workforce. But getting back to work has been an uphill battle: Many child-care facilities shuttered during the pandemic were overburdened and understaffed — as are many of the ones that remain open — forcing day-care centers and preschools to turn children away. And even if parents are able to find a center to take their children, many can’t afford it. Those with school-age children have largely returned their kids to in-person classes, but there’s always the risk schools could shut down again (the new Omicron variant presents one such threat). In October, Hernandez said she feared this possibility at Fatima’s preschool.
“There’s still a level of unpredictability for women who are looking for jobs and trying to return to the workforce,” said Nicole Mason, the president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “When women have less control of their schedule because of caretaking responsibilities, they have to weigh that against the jobs that are being offered and whether they’ll be able to sustain employment.”
Hernandez aspires to work full time as a special-education preschool teacher. When she got laid off from her old job assistant teaching at Educational Alliance — the community organization that helped connect us — she worried it meant delaying her career goals. The day she got the call, Hernandez said she found herself gasping for air and feeling as if she might faint. She tried to remind herself the pandemic was an unprecedented “global situation” that was affecting everyone, but those reassurances did little to help her anxiety, which she said primarily stemmed from being overwhelmed with uncertainty.
And she felt uncertain about almost everything: how much longer the lockdown would last, whether preschools would reopen, when and if she would be able to start looking for a new job. It was nice to spend more time with Fatima — and Fatima, a homebody, loved being in the apartment with her mom all day — but not having a choice in the matter started to weigh on her. “It was that debilitating feeling of, I can’t do anything,” Hernandez told me. “I’m in a hole, and there’s no way of getting out.”
Most days, though, her preoccupations about returning to the workforce were displaced by more urgent concerns: How much food was in the house? What could she cook for dinner? What could she afford to pick up at the grocery store?
When I met Hernandez at the Union Square Greenmarket one day in September, she showed me her book of WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program checks, which booths accept as payment for fruit, produce, and herbs. She was on the lookout for corn and potatoes — which would accompany the cod she planned to cook that evening — as well as bananas. But after buying corn at one stand, she struggled to find another that would sell her potatoes whose cost equaled one or two WIC checks. Vendors don’t give you change when you use the checks, she explained, so it had to add up exactly; each check was worth $4. This conundrum led us to reflect on how much better a farmers’ market potato could be than one at the supermarket. Not that much better, we concluded. “I know I can get them cheaper at the grocery store,” Hernandez said.
During the pandemic, more than one in six households with children reported “sometimes” or “often” not having enough food, and 47 percent of families said they spent their first CTC payment on food. It was never the case for Hernandez’s family that there wasn’t enough to eat, she told me; it was more about making do with what was on hand. Before the pandemic, Hernandez said she might have cooked a separate meal or snack for Fatima if she didn’t like what she and her dad were having for dinner. After Hernandez lost her job, that wasn’t an option. The harder months required meticulous meal-planning and making sure her family was “consuming what’s here, buying what’s cheapest, what will last the longest, and stocking up on whatever’s on sale,” Hernandez said one day over the phone. “We just had a lot more wiggle room before the pandemic.”
At the market, Hernandez said she was glad Fatima was no longer as picky and had gotten used to getting by on a little less; it was a lesson Hernandez once had to learn herself, growing up with a single mother. Hernandez planned to use the tax credits exclusively on after-school care, not groceries, but she said having the extra money had given her an overall sense of security. “It just filled in the gaps,” she said.
For Hernandez’s family, this meant covering day-care costs, but for other families, the expanded tax credits meant money for new clothes that fit better, healthier meals, or trips to the zoo or a museum. Parents could say yes to their children more — yes to that extra snack or toy or school field trip. Parents who use the money for rent and utilities might have found themselves less stressed when they came home from work and more able to enjoy the time they spent with their children.
Hernandez has a sense of humor about her ups and downs during the pandemic. Even when she’s recounting some of the most stressful moments from the past year and a half, it’s usually with a laugh. “Anxiety … I didn’t know her before COVID,” she told me in Union Square, her eyes wide behind large black sunglasses.
During our conversations, she called the extended tax credits a massive “stress reliever,” the “highlight of her life,” and the support without which “nothing else would be possible.” Because of the monthly payments, “I’ll be able to start my dreams again,” she said.
But as the program’s deadline drew closer, Hernandez couldn’t help but think about what would happen after December 15, the date of the final check. In October, she still hadn’t found full-time employment — nor was she able to resolve her issue with the unemployment office — and her partner’s job was entering a slow period. Democrats initially included a proposal to renew the extended tax credits through 2025 in the Build Back Better Act, but after months of negotiations with Republicans and centrist members of their own party, the program shrunk; the current version of the legislation would renew the policy only through 2022. And after Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a Democrat, went on Fox News to announce he would not vote for the Build Back Better Act, it appeared as though the extended child tax credits — along with all of the other social programs in the $1.9 trillion spending plan — were effectively dead. Manchin reportedly pointed to the child tax credits specifically, telling his colleagues he believed parents would use the monthly payments on drugs, according to HuffPost.
There was that kernel of uncertainty, that unpredictability, for Hernandez again. How much would she be making come January? How would she have to readjust her budget if the monthly tax-credit payments weren’t coming in? One way or another, her income would vary again, and she would have to start a new “mathematical journey.”
“Many of us rely on and are able to predict our budget and pay our bills based on knowing what income is coming in the door,” said Mason, the head of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “The inability to do that creates fear and instability in the lives of these families who are most economically vulnerable and have the least amount of resources to be able to weather missed income. The end of the extended child tax credits could create a financial cliff for some families.”
Hernandez said she was taking things day by day. “Right when I start feeling safe, something new comes into effect,” she wrote in an email to me before our last meeting. “Walking through this journey has just taught me a new world. A world where I have to think specifically and strategically within my four walls.”
At the Manny Cantor Center, Fatima yelled “Bye!” to her preschool teacher before grabbing an apple and handing her backpack to her mom. We headed to the playground across the street, where Fatima found a friend to play hopscotch with as Hernandez and I watched from a bench. Fatima told Hernandez that if she held on to the apple for her, she could have a bite, but she returned a moment later demanding to know if her mom had eaten any. “Nope, I swear,” Hernandez said, rolling her eyes with a smile as Fatima ran over to the monkey bars.
After picking up some dumplings for Fatima’s dinner, Hernandez walked with me in the direction of the J train. She started thinking again about the past few months of the child tax credits, which, at the time of our conversation, had amounted to $900 of extra cash for her and her family. In the grand scheme of things, she knew, $900 wasn’t that much. And it still wasn’t quite enough to create the perfect conditions for her to find a full-time job.
In November, Hernandez told me she had gotten a tentative offer for a part-time job starting in January. Picking up Fatima from after-school care at 5 p.m. — though easier to accommodate than her old 3 p.m. pickup time — put a traditional nine-to-five job out of reach, she realized. (The tax credits hadn’t been enough to cover the full year of after-school in the first place, Hernandez reminded me.)
“We did the math, and there’s no space for full-time work for me right now,” Hernandez said. “It doesn’t work out in any way or form with the day-care system.”
The tax credits hadn’t made it easier to find a full-time job — or fixed all of the problems with the day-care system in the U.S. — but the extra money had given her the time to hunt for and land a part-time position. Soon, she hoped, her life would more closely resemble the one she had before the pandemic.
“The one thing I really want people to know,” Hernandez told me, “is that you can do a lot with a little.”