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How expanding the federal Child Tax Credit will help 424,000 AZ kids

The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a bipartisan bill that includes a big expansion of the Child Tax Credit. Advocates say it could lift millions of children out of poverty if it passes the U.S. Senate — including hundreds of thousands here in Arizona.

January Contreras recently took over the helm of the Children’s Action Alliance, which advocates for issues benefitting children and families at the state Capitol. Contreras spoke more with The Show about the group's major priorities this session.

JANUARY CONTRERAS: It's a lot of work around health care. So this session, we have a bill that is moving through the Legislature with bipartisan support to expand access to comprehensive dental care for families who are part of our Medicaid system. On child welfare, that's a big focus of ours. And we're really working to try to make sure we're moving resources to prevent the necessary separation of kids and families so that we're putting more resources to keep families safely together because we know that the vast majority of families who are there are, it's not abuse. And sometimes the supports coming in at the right time in a crisis can make the difference.

We are particularly working on bills that are about grandparents. I mean, how many of us know grandparents who are lending a hand and stepping in when the parents can't to raise grandkids, aunts, uncles, you know, family members, these kinship caregivers. And Arizona has made some strides in this space, but we want to keep moving the ball so that kinship caregivers are being supported the same way that other foster care parents are and whether they're in a formal situation or not. So we have some bills that again are, are moving just this week. They're getting their hearings. We're very excited about that and we hope that the legislature will choose to come through for those kinship caregivers.

LAUREN GILGER: So I want to talk about one bill on your agenda this session, this is SB 1037. It's aimed at something that seems kind of innocuous, which you just mentioned there, which is like access to dental care. Arizona's Medicaid system does not at this point cover primary and preventative care for adults right now.

CONTRERAS: That's right. And this is one where we're going to restore part of services that once existed before the great recession for a moment there. Children's Action Alliance, You wouldn't necessarily think we'd be focused on this dental or oral health aspect. But one of our areas that we focus on is maternal health, infant mortality, which you don't even ever want to hear those two words come together. But Arizona across the country, it's true. But Arizona too, we're seeing an increase in problems with maternal health. And you don't think about, like, when you're trying to solve this very big issue, how do you do that?

But it's these small policy changes that can really make a difference. What you're putting within, reach to a pregnant mom,, to someone who needs, who has a dental issue, who can't afford it. I know we know what those bills are like when it comes to dental services. So this actually mostly uses some of our existing money. We have a good match with the federal government when it comes to comprehensive dental services. So it actually allows us to use a lot of the funds we're all already spending in ways that that are all about prevention and when it comes to prevention that, you know, it's just a very powerful tool that we need to use as often as we can. 

GILGER: Yeah, so this is expanding coverage to adults for this kind of oral health care. Draw that connection for us there because that sounds so odd to folks, but there really is a big and proven connection between maternal health and oral health.

CONTRERAS: It's true when you try to break down what is happening during pregnancy that where we can bring solutions to bear. Oral health issues, dental health issues are a problem and they lead to problems for moms and bad outcomes and also problems for babies, low birth weights, for example. So the data is very clear and I know people don't want to sit there and read the whole reports, but just take it from us that this has shown if we can get during pregnancy, we can get access to dental health and oral health services is going to make a difference.

GILGER: And this is a problem, maternal mortality that is, as you said, going up, particularly here in Arizona and particularly among Black and Indigenous mothers.

CONTRERAS: It's true. We know the areas populations, you know, communities that are being particularly hurt. And when you look at a Medicaid population and families that are struggling, you know, this is the right way to spend the money that, that we're already investing there. In Arizona, we saw between '99 and '09, one study told us that our maternal health outcomes quadrupled, we saw the the bad outcomes quadruple. So it's a very serious issue we need to tackle with the sense of urgency and this is one way to do it.

GILGER: I want to also talk about a potential impact from this expansion of the child tax credit that lawmakers in Washington, D.C., are talking about right now. It's on the table. Tell us, first of all, we've heard a lot probably about the potential impact on on lifting Children out of poverty on a national level. What would this look like in Arizona?

CONTRERAS: Well, in Arizona, if this bipartisan agreement and you know, hey, that's exciting to see at a time when we see a lot of polarization, members came together to say this is something we're gonna work on. And the package has the expanded child tax credit and other pieces to it for small businesses and others. But we're focused on what you just asked about, which is what does that mean for children across the country, and especially right here in Arizona. What we know in Arizona is that 424,000 children would get an economic boost. They would get a check at their home that is either larger than the current child tax credit provides or it's new to them because unfortunately, the current model leaves out a lot of low-income families. And you know, the they deserve to get that investment into them and their households too.

So it's very exciting that the child tax credit has this bipartisan support. We had the chance to gather with some stakeholders and Senator Kelly's staff just a couple of weeks ago just to talk about the child tax credit. And we appreciated that because it's an important tool. Look, child poverty. Nobody wants child poverty to exist in this great country that we live in. But it does. We saw the child tax credit during the pandemic drive down child poverty in major ways. So this is not a mystery. We don't need to find, you know, the secret code. We know what works. The child tax credit does work and bringing some economic relief to more families at a time when the grocery store bill is, is, you know, really hurting them. It's absolutely the right thing to do.

GILGER: So you mentioned the pandemic there and what's interesting about this is because of those pandemic measures, lots of families that had never before gotten this child tax credit were getting it. But like not even when they filed their taxes, like as a check in the mail every month. What's the difference between what was happening during the pandemic and what this new compromise would do?

CONTRERAS: So this restores parts of the pandemic era child tax credit, meaning it covered a lot of families. We went back to this model then where we couldn't get bipartisan support that left out of the lowest income families, those with the greatest economic need. So, you know, we're most in favor of the pandemic model. Look, families deserve to be invested in just like we're investing in roads and businesses in other parts of our society. But this is an important move to make sure that we are capturing more families. And again, 424,000 kids just in Arizona will receive that check or it'll be a bigger check and it's a time where rents are rising and you know, it's just hard to make it. So providing a little bit of breathing room is gonna make a big difference for a lot of families.

GILGER: All right, we'll leave it there for now. January Contreras, president and CEO of Children's Action Alliance, joining us to talk more about these things. January, thank you for coming in. I appreciate it very much.

CONTRERAS: Thank you, Lauren. Great to be here.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.