Sun shines on the U.S. Capitol dome, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, in Washington. Credit: Patrick Semansky / AP

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Ann Danforth is the economic security policy advocate at Maine Equal Justice. Stephanie J. Eglinton is executive director of the Maine Children’s Alliance.

The American Rescue Plan — the federal COVID relief proposal currently moving through Congress — has the power to cut child poverty in our nation and in our state by nearly half. In Maine, this means close to 15,000 children would be lifted above the poverty line, and many more would benefit. It’s exactly the kind of bold policy we need to begin making our post-pandemic “new normal” more equitable and give families the chance to rebuild.

Last week, the House passed this popular plan, and the Senate will vote on it shortly, but it cannot come quickly enough for Maine’s families and children. Parents are sitting at kitchen tables across Maine each night and wondering how to make ends meet and how to hang on.

According to the Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey, 28 percent of Mainers are having difficulty covering usual household expenses and 17 percent of adults living with children stated that they did not have enough to eat. Close to 50,000 Mainers filed jobless benefit claims at the end of January, and roughly 20,000 to 40,000 Maine households are behind in their rent and at risk of eviction. In recent months, food pantries across Maine have seen a 50 percent increase in the need for food assistance.

Spring and vaccinations may be close at hand, but the effects of the pandemic are still having a devastating impact on our economy and our schools. Many kinds of federal or state support have run out, and children are suffering. The American Rescue Plan extends important relief benefits, provides a new direct payment, and expands key tax credits. These provisions not only will provide urgent relief to struggling Mainers — enabling families to stay housed and keep food on the table — they will also deliver critical economic stimulus to our state.

The bill would temporarily expand the Child Tax Credit to more families with children (particularly those with the lowest incomes), increase the size of the credit, and make it available monthly for parents who want to receive it that way. In Maine, 10,000 children would be lifted above the poverty line by the child tax credit expansion alone. This would make the biggest difference for parents working in low-paying “essential” jobs, including child care workers, nurses, home health aides, and cashiers.

Raising families’ incomes through policies like the Child Tax Credit will be life-changing for Maine children, today and in the future. Direct income support is linked to improved child development and outcomes, including healthier birthweights, lower maternal stress, better childhood nutrition, more school attendance, higher high school graduation rates, higher rates of college entry and other benefits.

The American Rescue Plan would also throw a lifeline to Maine families by extending unemployment insurance benefits, an essential safety net for parents who have lost their jobs due to COVID. It also includes more housing support for Mainers who are struggling to pay rent and avoid eviction, including extending the eviction moratorium.

The American Rescue Plan offers us a foundation on which to build a better future for Maine’s children. Instead of returning to the pre-pandemic status quo, where close to 1 in 7 Maine kids were living in poverty (a number that is higher for kids from Black, Indigenous, and communities of color in Maine due to structural inequities and discrimination), we have the opportunity now to help families rebuild and thrive in a state where our “new normal” is more equitable. This will move us closer to the goals identified by Invest in Tomorrow, an initiative undertaken by Maine organizations including Maine Equal Justice and Maine Children’s Alliance, businesses, and individuals, to cut the child poverty rate in half over the next ten years, with a goal of eradicating poverty in a generation.

We urge our senators to swiftly pass the American Rescue Plan. This infusion of relief will meet the urgent needs of Maine families and children, setting the state on a course for a strong and equitable recovery — one in which all Maine families and children have the chance to reach their full potential.