In an effort to make the U.S. tax code match the needs of American families today, legislators have introduced the Single Parent Penalty Elimination Act. Here's how Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and Congresswoman Katie Porter say it will help single parents.

By Maressa Brown
May 28, 2021
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Nearly a quarter of U.S. children under the age of 18 are being raised by single parents, according to the latest data from the Pew Research Center. And yet, these parents—who generally file their taxes as the "head of household"—cannot take advantage of the child tax credit in the same way as married couples.

Initially introduced in the late '90s, the child tax credit was recently expanded under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, however eligibility phases out at $150,000 annual income for married couples and $112,500 for single parents. And single parent households receive less assistance because of the belief that less income is required to sustain that household.

An image of Katie Porter and Ayanna Pressley
Credit: Getty Images (2). Art: Jillian Sellers.

Requiring that all families check one of those two boxes just didn't make sense to Rep. Katie Porter (CA-45), who is a single mom of three. "Like every member of Congress, I [bring] my life experiences to the work that I do," she says. "I take head of household, because I'm a single mom, caring for dependents."

That is, in fact, the status most commonly used by single parents. That's why Rep. Porter and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (MA-07), along with Rep. Don Beyer (VA-08), have introduced The Single Parent Penalty Elimination Act, which would change the income threshold for Americans filing as heads of household so that it is the same as those who are married filing jointly.

Reps. Porter and Pressley discuss how the bill would offer much-needed assistance to single parents and their children.

The Child Tax Credit: A Bit of Background

The child tax credit (CTC) was created in an effort to help families offset the cost of raising a child and cover expenses (such as quality child care, after-school programs, nutritious food, and safe housing). Currently, the CTC is worth up to $2,000 per child under age 18. But because families have needed even more support during the pandemic, Congress temporarily increased the CTC to $3,600 per child under age 6 and $3,000 per child between the ages of 6 and 17.

Yet in order to qualify for the CTC, parents must make no more than $150K if they're filing as a married couple or $112,500 if they're unmarried and have at least one dependent.

An illustrated example of how this might work in the real world, according to Rep. Porter: "Say you have two families. One is a married couple earning $150,000, with three young kids, and the other is a single parent earning $130,000 with three kids. The married couple would get three times the amount of the child tax credit. So it's really a significant difference in terms of the ability to support those three children."

The Disparity Between Married and Single Parent Filers

There are several reasons single parents aren't getting the same benefit as married couples, according to the congresswomen.

Legislators mistakenly believed single parent households need less.

Lawmakers who came up with the current income thresholds believed that because single parents have one fewer adult in the home, they need less to make ends meet, according to an explainer on the bill prepared by Rep. Porter's office.

And the idea that single parents need less income to raise children made absolutely no sense to either congresswoman. "I was raised in a single-parented household, and there is no discount to being a single parent," says Rep. Pressley.

Legislators didn't want to discourage anyone from tying the knot.

The congresswoman adds that she was also told by a couple of colleagues, "We don't want to incentivize people not to be married." Rep. Pressley totally disagrees. "Nobody is like, 'Oh, being a single parent seems super fun,'" she says. "There are people who choose to start their families as single parents, there are people who wind up as single parents through divorce or death, or other circumstances."

Instead of focusing on disincentivizing marriage, Rep. Porter says, "What we ought to be worried about is kids in single parent households not having those opportunities, not having nutritional food, not having the adequate housing, not having the child care."

Gender and racial biases are deeply embedded in our tax code.

Rep. Pressley points to the fact that 81 percent of single parent households are women and 66 percent of single parent households are Black. "There are these cultural biases codify a one-dimensional narrative of family," says the congresswoman. "This is 2021. We have many family models."

It's Time to Fix the Child Tax Credit

Although we're in a moment in which more and more people, including the vice president, are talking about and showing reverence for single parents, Rep. Porter expresses shock around the "attitude of pity" and lack of understanding she's received from colleagues. "[I've heard], 'Your situation is really unusual. We can't run the Congress to make it work for you. You're just carrying water for your people,'" explains the congresswoman.

To that she responds, "Hell yes, I am carrying water for the single parents of this country, who for hundreds and hundreds of years, have been treated with disdain or with scorn or ignored by policymakers."

Rep. Pressley adds, "This is an economic justice issue; it's a gender justice issue. This is also a racial justice issue."

Let's not forget the other issues single parents are facing, such as pay equity, the cost of child care, student debt, and the lack of paid family leave, explain the congresswomen.

As the country rebuilds post-pandemic, they want to see a "just, equitable, robust recovery" that takes that big picture into consideration. "When we're talking about making a child tax credit permanent, then this is the time to reform what is an antiquated, culturally biased code," says Rep. Pressley. "You can't have a just society—and certainly not a just recovery—if you are not including everyone."

According to Rep. Porter, the bill could stand to benefit more than 400,000 households. And while the bill might be titled the Single Parent Penalty Elimination Act, it's ultimately about addressing "a child penalty," says the congresswoman. "It's not the parents who are going to suffer in the long-term—it's the kids."

What Comes Next

The bill was introduced into Congress on May 13, 2021. The next step is it being considered by committee before possibly being sent to the House or Senate. To show your support for the Single Parent Penalty Elimination Act (HR 3216), Reps. Porter and Pressley recommend calling your legislator and asking them to co-sponsor the bill.