Families worried about their tax credits

charlie shivers family
The Shivers family stands to lose thousands of dollars worth of tax credits next year unless Congress takes action.

With the fate of the fiscal cliff uncertain, the Shivers family is bracing for a big tax hit.

Charlie and Jessica Shivers currently receive a Child Tax Credit of about $1,000 for each of their two children. But if Congress fails to extend the credit as it stands, that will drop to no more than $500 each.

And it doesn't stop there. Jessica works as a stay-at-home mom. But Charlie, a federal employee, earns about $84,000 so has received an annual $1,700 boost from the payroll tax cut passed in 2010. But that extra money is likely to disappear because Congress is not expected to extend the tax cut.

Many families like the Shivers could also end up worse off by hundreds or thousands of dollars next year if a deal to avert the fiscal cliff isn't reached.

Four of the biggest tax breaks for families on the chopping block are the Child Tax Credit, Earned Income Tax Credit, Child and Dependent Care Credit and the American Opportunity Credit. All are scheduled to revert to lower levels with the start of the new year.

Meanwhile, the expiration of the payroll tax cut would cause paychecks to shrink for 160 million working Americans, regardless of whether they have children.

Related: Parents await fate of four key tax breaks

The bill passed by the Senate early Tuesday would extend three of these credits, but the legislation still must be approved by the House.

For the Shivers, losing $2,700 would mean a cutback in spending. They would delay home improvements, take fewer road trips to see their family and eat out less often.

Fiscal cliff jitters on the street
Fiscal cliff jitters on the street

"As far as being a consumer, we're going to cut back significantly," he said.

It would also stunt the progress they've made paying off their student loan debt, and they wouldn't be able to put as much money into retirement and college savings.

The tax hit wouldn't be "the difference between putting food on the table or not," but it would definitely "still hurt", said Charlie.

Related: Why your paycheck will shrink, no matter what

Another parent, Linda Sadlouskos, is frustrated that she may not be able to take advantage of the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which is scheduled to revert to the Hope Credit and drop from a maximum of $2,500 to $1,800. It would also no longer be refundable, and it would be available for only two years rather than four.

Her son is attending the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey this year, and she makes too much to qualify for need-based grants.

"My family income is too high for him to have ever qualified for any outright grants, so this is the only form of assistance we would receive toward his education," she said. "Since I'm a single mom trying to get him his education, every bit helps, because we're on a pretty tight budget."

But most of all, she said it's "unforgivable" that Congress can't get its act together and that parents like her have been left not knowing what to expect going into the new year.

"It seems really callous of all of our lawmakers to be leaving us hanging on New Year's like this," she said. "This is no way to treat the public."

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