WASHINGTON (RNS) — A campaign backed by a broad coalition of Christian leaders will urge Congress to extend the child tax credit to low-income families, hoping to broaden access to the popular financial assistance program after lawmakers allowed an expanded version to expire last year.

Beginning with an advertisement in Politico Magazine that will run Thursday (May 26) and a letter sent to all 535 members of Congress and to the White House the same day, the campaign supports including a widely accessible version of the child tax credit in a bill working its way through the budget reconciliation process.

“As you work to craft an economic reconciliation bill, we would like to lift up one preeminent priority: making the Child Tax Credit fully refundable and available to low-income families on a permanent basis,” reads the letter, which was provided exclusively to Religion News Service.

The authors conclude: “To pass a reconciliation bill without including a permanent and fully refundable Child Tax Credit would be morally indefensible.”

The effort was organized by the Rev. Jim Wallis and Georgetown University’s Center on Faith and Justice. Among its signers are the Rev. Walter Kim, head of the National Association of Evangelicals; the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church; the Rev. Eugene Cho, president of Bread for the World; and the Rev. Amy Reumann, director of advocacy for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The Rev. Barbara Williams-Skinner, co-chair of the National African American Clergy Network, also signed the letter, as did Mary Novak, head of the Catholic social justice lobby Network, and John Carr, founder of Georgetown’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.

The child tax credit, which offers financial assistance to parents, was expanded last year in the White House’s pandemic relief legislation, allowing most U.S. families monthly payments of up to $300 per child. The expanded credit, previous versions of which have long been supported by lawmakers of both parties, was regarded as a “remarkable success at reducing child poverty,” the Christian leaders’ letter said.

But lawmakers allowed the expansion to expire in December when efforts to pass the sweeping Build Back Better Act, President Joe Biden’s broad-based environmental and social spending agenda, fell apart. Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, said he would join Republican senators’ opposition to the tax credit provision unless it included a work requirement for families whose income is below the minimum to incur federal income tax.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Sept. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Sept. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The work requirement drew widespread criticism from religious groups. “Work is critically important to human dignity but having a particular level of earned family income should not be a prerequisite to accessing support for their children,” Galen Carey, vice president of government relations for the National Association of Evangelicals, told RNS at the time.

According to researchers at Columbia University, child poverty increased 41% a month after the credit expired. In their new letter, the Christian leaders advocate making the the current $2,000 credit refundable, which would allow families to receive the payment without having to provide proof of income or owe federal income tax. Doing so, they argue, would reduce child poverty by 20%.

“Before the expanded credit roughly half of Black and Latino children, and half of children living in rural areas, got less than the full credit because their families’ incomes were too low,” reads the letter. “If the credit is made fully refundable, these children would receive the full credit amount.”

The letter’s authors invoke a passage from the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus tells his followers to care for the “least of these.” The letter also chides lawmakers for considering tax cuts for corporations while demurring on efforts to combat child poverty.

“It is simply wrong to prioritize tax breaks to corporations over tax breaks for poor and middle class families,” they write.

Other faith groups have rallied behind the child tax credit, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Last week, the group sent a letter to Congress celebrating the expanded version of the credit and urging lawmakers to prioritize the poor.

“Especially in this moment of economic uncertainty, we urge you to take action to ensure the progress made in the fight against child poverty this past year is not lost and that we build on these gains,” the bishops’ letter reads.

Leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign, a faith-led activist group that often advocates for liberal-leaning legislation, have lauded the child tax credit and lambasted Manchin for proposing work requirements. In September of last year, campaign co-chair the Rev. Liz Theoharis condemned tying the credit to work requirements as a “regression back to the tired debate of deserving and undeserving poor.”