Kay Ketchem sits with her children, Beatrix, 8 months, Leo, 7, and Ivy, 6, in their Salem home on Saturday, Aug. 7, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Kay Ketchem was browsing Facebook in late June when she stumbled on an article saying she might soon be getting a check in the mail from the government.

The 33-year-old Salem mother of three checked the IRS website and saw her family would be eligible for a child tax credit, with monthly $800 payments starting in July.

“I called my husband immediately and I went, ‘I think this is legit,’” Ketchem said. “We were pretty tight at the end of June and we were doing our budget for July. We were very excited.”

Ketchem is among the Salem parents who said they’ve been able to afford bills and small luxuries for their kids thanks to the expansion of the child tax credit, passed by Congress in March as part of a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill.

The U.S. has long had a child tax credit, where parents of minor children pay a lower tax bill. But the March law temporarily increased the amount of the credit for 2021, and allowed families to receive payments monthly from July through December, rather than having to wait to file their taxes and get a refund in the spring.

That means a few hundred dollars per moth, per child are flowing to many Salem families. The credit begins to phase out for couples making more than $150,000 per year or heads of household making more than $112,500.

Ketchem described her family as middle class. She works in insurance and had her hours cut in the pandemic as fewer people were buying new policies.

Her husband is a salesman at a local furniture store and earns much of his income based on commission. When sales slowed early in the pandemic, that hit their bottom line.

“That can affect us thousands of dollars,” she said.

Shortly after receiving the first payment in early July, Ketchem said it had largely gone toward paying down debt. But the family splurged a little, buying popcorn and ice cream on a recent shopping trip - luxuries they usually do without.

“We’re taking the kids to the zoo this week and then everything else is just bills,” she said.

Salem and Oregon organizations that work with children and families said it’s too early to tell the full impact the credit will have. But several reported the payments have been a significant help for the families they work with.

Many families, even those who don’t normally get food stamps, are also receiving extra food payments from the state to compensate them for school meals their children didn’t receive during school closures last year.

“This kind of relief will absolutely be game-changing,” said Toya Fick, executive director of Oregon’s Stand for Children, a nonprofit education advocacy organization.

She said the organization spent time reaching out directly to families to make sure they know about the credit and can spread the word to others. On a national level, the organization is advocating for making the credit permanent.

Fick said she expects the extra money in parents’ pockets will help lower-income kids focus on school rather than worrying about having enough to eat.

“The stress of not having enough resources - I grew up poor as a kid, that weighs a lot on children. It’s sometimes hard to hide that stress,” she said. “I think this will be super helpful and beneficial for learning.”

“Normally what we’re hearing is they’re just trying to catch up with all their bills,” said Erica Chavez, a community health worker with Salem-based Catholic Community Services.

Chavez works with about 70 families in Salem and Woodburn who live in affordable rental units operated by the nonprofit. Most have seen their incomes impacted by the Covid pandemic, she said, whether because of having hours cut at work, needing time off to care for a sick relative, having to stop working to provide child care or help with online school.

She said she and other workers are helping families budget the extra income to cover back-to-school costs and ensuring families eligible for the credit receive it.

“It was a great program for families. We really have seen the impact, just helping families catch up with their bills and rent and it’s been very helpful,” she said.

For Donald Davis, a west Salem father of three, his $500 monthly payment made up for some income his small business lost during the pandemic.

Davis works as a licensed practical nurse, but has a side business running a mobile coffee shop that traveled to events before the pandemic forced most to cancel. He said the extra money in July helped pay for his 11-year-olds to attend sleepaway camp and will also cover new clothes for school.

“I think this is a great opportunity for working families to get back into the swing of things,” he said.

Single parents said the payment has been especially helpful as they juggle responsibilities for their households and children.

Michelle Farmer, 45, who lives in Salem, had no idea the credit had been extended until she found out from her two-year-old son’s father.

Farmer receives subsidized housing and takes care of herself and her son on $450 monthly child support payments. She doesn’t work because she said she’s only qualified to hold minimum wage jobs. Her two-year-old son is autistic and she’s not sure he would do well in daycare, which would cost about as much as she’d earn at work.

“It would pretty much be a wash,” she said. “It would just go right to paying childcare.”

The monthly payment is a significant boost to her income.

“Three hundred dollars is probably not a lot to other people, but it’s a lot to me,” she said.

Salem mom Cryssi Brubaker, who earns about $40,000 per year working in insurance, said the $500 per month check has helped her keep up with the amount of food her 11 and 13-year-old sons can put away. The family was also able to leave air conditioning on longer during Salem’s triple-digit temperatures without worrying as much about the cost.

Sheree Fusselman, who works as the volunteer coordinator for Meals on Wheels in Salem, is the single mother of four children, ages two, six, 14 and 17.

She said the $750 monthly payment will help cover many of the extras that come with having kids. Her oldest daughter just finished having braces, and her six-year-old now wants to enroll in karate lessons, something the credit will make possible.

“They’re getting what they need and they’re pretty happy about it,” she said.

With extra money coming into the house, Fusselman also made a one-time purchase - a chest freezer that will allow her to buy food in bulk when it’s on sale.

“This is just a very big blessing for us,” she said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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