By Kathleen Stoll
Dec 16, 2021
There is no question that our country is facing high inflation. The 6.8% consumer price jump is the highest annual inflation rate increase in 39 years. Prices for food, energy, housing, autos and clothing are all going up. COVID-19 is the key factor that is reducing world production and distribution, creating goods shortages, raising labor costs and driving up inflation.

This inflation jump has been illustrated by numerous media charts and graphs. We all see the effects of inflation at the check-out lines of grocery and retail stores. There is no question that low-income families — with little spare change in their monthly budgets and no cushion of savings — are feeling the hardest budget squeeze this winter.

But a single conversation really drove home to me how inflation is increasing the real hardships faced by low-income West Virginia families. I was chatting with a mom with two young children in the line at the local Dollar General. She shared that her family probably would forgo buying a Christmas tree this year. With trees going for $50 or more, it just didn’t make sense to try to tighten their budget belt another notch to buy a tree. I could see the sadness on her face. I asked if she and the kids could have some fun cutting down a free cedar tree from a local hayfield. Let’s face it, our local cedar trees are thin and scraggly things — often shaped like an hourglass by grazing deer. But, in the spirit of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the family could add lights and ornaments and make do. Of course, for this family, that plan requires already having lights and ornaments, because the prices of decorations are up, too.

I asked the mother if she would receive a child tax credit payment in December. In March, Congress passed COVID-19 relief legislation that increased the existing federal child tax credit and established monthly advance payments of up to $300 per child. Congress also made the tax credit available to families with little or no income, who previously had been left out of the program’s full benefits. The woman took my question to be a suggestion that maybe the child tax credit would help buy a small Christmas tree.

She quickly scoffed at the idea of using tax credit money to buy a tree. She tolerantly explained to me that the child tax credit payment was already earmarked to put Christmas dinner on the table, cover the electric bill that went up with cold weather and to help pay the end-of-the-year car insurance bill. A national survey of child tax credit-eligible families was conducted in October, after most eligible families had received up to three rounds of monthly tax credit advance payments. Like this West Virginia mom, the most common way survey respondents reported using the child tax credit was on existing, past-due bills, food and groceries, transportation and to help pay rent or a mortgage.

The child tax credit is about helping families pay for necessities. Inflation means families who already were stretching their paychecks to get by are now facing new budget shortfalls. Without passage by Congress of Build Back Better and the extension of the enhanced child tax credit, many families in West Virginia would see the credit cut or taken away entirely. About 346,000 West Virginia children —93% of our kids — are helped by the enhanced child tax credit.

What greater sacrifices will inflation force West Virginia families to make in the new year if Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., fails to vote for Build Back Better? There are other provisions in Build Back Better that will lend a hand to struggling families by lowering health insurance premiums, slashing prescription drug prices, assisting with child care and elder care costs, providing rental assistance and more. These investments in families are paid for by asking billionaires to pay a fair share of taxes. Like a Hallmark movie, this Christmas story might have a happy ending. The woman said she and the kids might cut down a cedar tree.

And Manchin might yet vote to pass Build Back Better, so that families across our state will have urgently needed help as they cope with COVID-driven inflation in the new year.