Child Tax Credit

No matter how bad a child is, he is still a good tax credit. — Modification of an American Proverb

The child tax credit was enacted by Congress in 1997 to lower the tax burden on lower income Americans with children. The child tax credit (CTC) can be up to $2,000 for each qualifying child under age 17 by the end of the tax year, who is a US citizen, resident, national, or an adopted child who lived with you during the tax year. Except for the fact that the child must be younger than 17, all other tests for a qualifying child under the dependency exemptions must be satisfied. The child tax credit can only be claimed for a 12-month tax year. The tax credit cannot be applied to a spouse's child, who is not the biological offspring of the claimant, unless the child is adopted by the spouse claiming the credit. Moreover, the adoption credit cannot be claimed for adopting the children of a spouse.

The credit is figured on the Child Tax Credit Worksheet in Publication 972, which is not attached to the return, but is simply used to calculate the credit. Because it is a nonrefundable credit, it is limited to your ordinary income tax liability, which may be reduced by other credits claimed earlier on Form 1040, such as the foreign tax credit, credit for child and dependent care expenses, education tax credits, and the retirement savings contribution credit. A nonrefundable credit does not offset payroll tax liability, i.e., Social Security and Medicare taxes.

A phaseout of the credit starts when your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) exceeds the phaseout amount:


For most people, MAGI = adjusted gross income. The phaseout income threshold depends on filing status:

If your income exceeds the phaseout amount, then the credit is reduced by $50 for each $1,000, or fraction thereof, above the phaseout amount.

(Since the child tax credit presumably exists so that poor people could more easily afford children, many people may wonder why people earning $200,000 need a child tax credit. Another enigma is why a married couple filing jointly should be able to earn double the income and still get the child tax credit. After all, wouldn’t single parents have a greater need for the child tax credit? The Republicans greatly increased the income limit in their 2017 tax package for the wealthy, so I presume they increased the limit so that members of Congress can also claim the child tax credit. After Joe Biden became President in 2021, the Democrats wanted to pass a $1.9 trillion package to help people during the Covid-19 pandemic, including giving people earning less than $75,000 $1400 in assistance. This $1400 was an additional one-time payment to help people during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, the Republicans balked, arguing that giving $1400 to people earning $75,000 was too much. Yet in their 2017 tax package, they allowed couples earning almost $400,000 to claim the $2000 child tax credit for each child every single year until their children reached 17 years of age. And this is the same party that continually complains about the federal deficit!)

The new tax package passed by the Republicans at the end of 2017, known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), the child tax credit has been increased to $2,000 per child, with up to $1400 being refundable. However, the personal exemption has been eliminated, although a $500 credit can be claimed for dependents other than children. The income phaseout amount has also been increased to $400,000 married filing jointly, and $200,000 for everyone else. If a dependent does not qualify for the child tax credit, then they may qualify for a new family credit of up to $500. The new law also requires that each child have a Social Security number before the due date of the return, including extensions, to qualify for the child tax credit. If the dependent child does not have a Social Security number, but has an ITIN, then the taxpayer may be able to claim the new dependent credit of up to $500 for that child. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act has also reduced the earnings threshold from $3000 to $2500, starting in 2018.

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the new Consolidated Appropriations Act for 2021 (H.R. 133), signed into law on December 27, 2020, allows taxpayers to substitute 2019 earned income for 2020 earned income for both the Earned Income Tax Credit and for the Additional Child Tax Credit, if it is advantageous to do so, but this substitution may not be used to calculate any other tax items, such as gross and taxable income.

The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA)

The Democrats have greatly increased the generosity of the child tax credit. The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) has greatly increased the child tax credit for the poor, eliminating the work requirement, extending the age of qualifying children to 17, and making the credit fully refundable and half of it advanceable. However, these changes only apply to the 2021 tax year, after which it will revert to previous law. These are the major provisions:

Example: Calculating the Child Tax Credit for Incomes Above the Phaseout Amount

Ava is a single parent with 2 dependent children who qualify for the child tax credit, and she earned $215,020 for the tax year. Because her income is $15,020 more than the phaseout amount of $200,000 for a head of household, she must reduce the $4,000 child tax credit that she would otherwise be entitled to by:

Additional Child Tax Credit

For tax year 2021 only, the Additional Child Tax Credit is not applicable since the entire amount of the child tax credit is refundable, but the old law will apply in 2022 and thereafter.

The ordinary child tax credit, like most other credits and deductions, has an implicit work requirement, because it can only be used to offset ordinary income tax liability and for most people, especially poor people, that income tax liability comes from earning more than the total sum of the other tax credits and deductions.

Because $600 of the child tax credit is nonrefundable, families with little or no tax liability will not be able to benefit from the child tax credit. And since the standard deduction has been greatly increased for head of household status and for married filing jointly, many families will not be able to benefit from the child tax credit. At the same time, a single parent who makes less than $10,000 will not only not benefit from the regular child tax credit, but they will not even get much of the Additional Child Tax Credit. Even though the Additional Child Tax Credit is refundable, the refundable amount is limited by earnings.

Although the child tax credit is generally limited to ordinary income tax liability or AMT liability, an additional refundable credit may be claimed on Form 8812, Additional Child Tax Credit if your earned income exceeded $2,500. Thus, the Additional Child Tax Credit has an explicit work requirement. However, if you have more than 2 children, then you can still claim a refundable credit even if your earned income is not over $2,500. The purpose of the earnings requirement is to promote work.

Poor people cannot use the traditional child tax credit, because it can only offset ordinary income tax liability: it cannot be used to offset employment and other taxes listed in the Payments section of Form 1040. Therefore, poor people receive most or all their benefit from the Additional Child Tax Credit, because it is refundable. For instance, in 2018, the standard deduction is $18,000 for a head of household, so a parent with 1 child may claim the parent's own standard deduction of $18,000. Therefore, this parent would have no ordinary income tax liability if income does not exceed that. This is without even considering other possible deductions or tax credits that the parent may claim, such as a traditional IRA contribution. Therefore, the Additional Child Tax Credit provides most or all the tax savings for lower income taxpayers.

Richer taxpayers will have sufficient tax liability from ordinary earnings to claim the entire $2000 as the regular child tax credit. More children requires a higher income to rely only on the ordinary child tax credit.

Because it is refundable, the Additional Child Tax Credit can be used to reduce payroll tax liability. The refundable credit is limited to the lesser of the unclaimed portion of the nonrefundable credit amount or 15% of your earned income above $2,500. Combat zone pay, which is otherwise excludable, can be included in earned income when calculating the Additional Child Tax Credit.

Maximum Additional Child Tax Credit = Lesser of Unused Child Tax Credit or (Earned Income − $2500) × 15%

Examples: Calculating the Additional Child Tax Credit for Employees

Example: Amy, who had earned income of $20,000, could only claim a $200 child tax credit for her 2 children, since that was the extent of her ordinary income tax liability, which is figured thus: $20,000 − $18,000 (standard deduction for head of household) = $2000 taxable income; tax liability = $2000 of taxable income × 10% marginal tax rate = $200. Therefore, Amy can only claim $200 total of the regular child tax credit, but she will be able to claim the full $1400 of the refundable Additional Child Tax Credit for each child. Assuming that Amy did not have any other tax credits or deductions, she could only claim the full $600 of the ordinary child tax credit for each of her children if her taxable income was at least $12,000, and since she has a standard deduction of $18,000, her total income must be at least $30,000. With $12,000 of taxable income, Amy could then claim the ordinary child tax credit of $600 for each child, so her child tax credit would be $1000 greater than it would be with an income of only $20,000.

For taxpayers with more than 2 children, an additional credit may be available by using the following generalized procedure:

  1. (Earned Income − $2,500) × .15
  2. Amount Taxpayer Paid in Social Security and Medicare Taxes as an Employee (listed in Boxes 4 and 6 of Form W-2) + 1/2 of any Self-Employment Taxes − Earned Income Credit
  3. Tentative Credit = Greater of #1 or #2
  4. Unclaimed Credit = Maximum Child Tax Credit − Claimed Portion of Credit
  5. Additional Child Tax Credit = Lesser of #3 or #4

It seems that Congress intended to limit the Additional Child Tax Credit to the lower of either the taxpayer's payroll tax liability or to the unused portion of the child tax credit, to limit any possible refund. 15% of earned income is very close to the 15.3% payroll tax on earned income that is assessed on employees, the employer paying ½ of that, so Steps 1 and 2 seem to be designed to limit the additional credit to slightly less than the full payroll tax liability on the earned income. So a self-employed taxpayer who had no earnings as an employee would always select Step 1, since that will always exceed Step 2.

Note that Steps 2, 3, and 5 ensure that the child tax credit, unlike the earned income credit, will never exceed the taxpayer's total tax liability. So although it is a refundable tax, in that it reduces payroll tax liability, it is not a negative tax. However, 2 other refundable credits after listed after the Additional Child Tax Credit in the Payments section of Form 1040:

If either of the above credits can be claimed, then those may lead to a greater tax refund or will at least reduce the payroll tax liability for the self-employed.

Also, Step 4 and Step 5, together, ensure that the following equation is always true:

Child Tax Credit + Additional Child Tax Credit ≤ Number of Children × $2,000

Tip: if you can claim the child tax credit or the additional child tax credit and you want to receive more take-home pay, then increase your withholding allowances by filing a new Form W-4 with your employer.

After 2017, the earnings exclusion for the Additional Child Tax Credit was scheduled to rise from $3000 to $14,600, thus eliminating or reducing the credit for many poor families, but The Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act, otherwise known as the PATH Act, (Division Q of P.L. 114-113) has made the change a permanent part of the tax code.

Longer Delays for Refunds for Taxpayers Claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit or the Additional Child Tax Credit

Starting in 2017, there will be a longer wait for refunds for people claiming the Additional Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit. The EITC is fully refundable, meaning that the taxpayer will receive a refund even if no taxes were paid. The ACTC is refundable, but only to the extent of paid taxes, including employment taxes. Because the regular child tax credit can only offset ordinary tax liability, most poor people mainly benefit from the ACTC. Most other tax credits cannot be used to lower employment tax liability. Other refundable tax credits, such as the Premium Tax Credit for healthcare coverage, are not subject to the delay. However, the whole refund will be delayed, not just the portion attributable to the EITC and the ACTC.

The IRS is required to delay the refunds until at least February 15 so that it has the chance to verify the claimed credits, because, previously, many refunds were paid erroneously because of errors in claiming the refund or from fraud. Therefore, there will be some delay regardless of when the tax return is filed, so taxpayers who want their money sooner should file as soon as possible. Because of the Presidents’ Day holiday, the refunds may be delayed even for early filers until the end of February.

This delay was enacted as a provision under the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015, often known by its much briefer moniker, the Path Act.

Tax preparers may offer the tax refund sooner, but they are really offering a loan, since the delay is required by law. These loans often have unfavorable terms, so they should be avoided.

The estimated time for refunds can be checked after February 15 using the IRS2Go mobile app, or by checking the Where's My Refund? - It's Quick, Easy and Secure page at

Source: Refund Timing for Earned Income Tax Credit and Additional Child Tax Credit Filers

A Tale of 2 Government Handouts

Some people consider the child tax credit to be a government handout, as evinced by the fact that the Additional Child Tax Credit has an explicit work requirement. I do not know if the Republicans have a unified view of the child tax credit, but since they oppose abortion, they should, at least, help people to afford those children. However, governments — federal, state, and local — put most of the tax burden on working people. Indeed, the Republicans do not want to tax investment income or gratuitous transfers at all! So that leaves taxing only work. They want working people to pay all the income taxes, so it is natural that they should espouse hard work, since somebody must pay for government. The Republicans just don't want it to be the rich. The tax burden on work is one reason why inequality is increasing, and why it is so difficult to move up in society by simply working for it.

In this light, it is interesting to compare the child tax credit with another very generous tax credit that benefits the wealthy: the unified tax credit, used to eliminate the estate tax on more than $5 million of gratuitous transfers, i.e., gifts and bequests.

The child tax credit:

By contrast, the unified tax credit:

The unified tax credit is very generous, indeed. For instance, the 2019 unified tax credit is worth more than most people will ever earn (adjusting for inflation) in their entire lives. A person who works for 40 years, averaging $50,000 a year, will only earn $2 million over his working lifetime, and would pay an enormous amount of taxes on that income over those years. On the other hand, a child receiving $22.8 million from his parents does not have to pay any federal tax at all on that income — and no! — he doesn't have to work for it.

Remember, too, that it seems that the tax code for the child tax credit has been carefully crafted to minimize any actual refund to low-income taxpayers, by only allowing the credit to offset payroll taxes, so that the government's net credit to the taxpayer does not exceed what it has collected through payroll taxes. The Additional Child Tax Credit increases by 15% for each dollar over the $2500 minimum, which closely tracks the total payroll liability for an individual taxpayer. Of course, if the taxpayer also qualifies for the earned income credit or the premium tax credit or even the American Opportunity Credit, then the taxpayer's refund from these truly refundable credits will be increased by the child tax credit. Although this is a rather complicated explanation, it does explain why the calculation for the child tax credit is so complicated, and why the child tax credit is not simply a $2,000 refundable credit per child. Moreover, not everyone can work! And if they had children? Too bad, I guess! This is just 1 illustration showing how the tax code strives to limit payments to the poor, while being very generous to the wealthy, as demonstrated by the inflation-adjusted unified tax credit of over $4.5 million!

If the government truly wants to promote work, it would be more successful by taxing it less, instead of taxing it the most, as it is now, especially considering the fact that the deadweight loss of taxation on employment is greatest while the deadweight loss on taxing gratuitous transfers is 0. States and municipalities also tax work more than other forms of income.

Under the tax code, as in other things in life, the rich really do have it better!

Note: As noted in the news item above, the new tax package doubled the maximum child tax credit to $2000, with $1400 of it being refundable. However, the only reason why this was added to a tax package immensely beneficial to the wealthy is because Marco Rubio insisted on it, and without his vote, the rich would not have gotten their big tax breaks. As for the wealthy, among the many other goodies that they have received, the unified tax credit has been doubled, so now the wealthy can pass $22 million to their heirs without any tax liability. But since the government costs so much money, if the wealthy don't pay more taxes, then taxes must increase for everybody else! While the new tax package did lower taxes for many lower income Americans, it achieved this by greatly increasing the deficit, exactly at the time when taxes should be raised rather than lowered, since the economy was peaking then. After all, what will the government do when the next recession arrives, as it always does, since the economy continually moves in cycles. Moreover, when economic disasters strike, the government will be less able to deal with it without greatly expanding the deficit, such as what happened when Covid-19 struck, leading to more debt and higher interest payments. As I am writing this portion of the article in January 16, 2021, the government deficit is expanding faster than ever.

Eventually, these taxes must be repaid. For years, the Republicans have been screaming about the deficit, and now that they are in complete control of the government, they have greatly increased the deficit to benefit their political donors. What this means is that the Republicans were not really concerned about the deficit, only that not enough wealth was being transferred from the lower classes to the wealthy! Eventually, the Republicans will argue that taxes must be raised on everybody, mostly the poor and middle-class, and that so-called "entitlements" — Social Security and Medicare — needs to be reduced or even eliminated. Of course, working people have been paying heavy taxes for these entitlements all of their working lives, but the Republicans still call them entitlements. On the other hand, the unified tax credit is a free gift to the wealthy, and unlike the child tax credit, has no onerous requirements!

As Martin Luther King rightly pointed out many years ago, the United States has “socialism for the rich” and “rugged individualism for the poor.”