Cash support for low-income families directly affects baby brains

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A year of providing money to low-income mothers to reduce poverty had a direct effect on children’s brain development, researchers say.

The findings show that after one year of predictable, monthly, unconditional cash support given to low-income families, 1-year-old babies exhibited increased brain activity patterns associated with the development of thinking and learning.

For this study, researchers measured brain activity among a sample of 435 children participating in a landmark randomized controlled trial known as “Baby’s First Years.” The larger trial, the first direct poverty reduction evaluation in the United States to focus on early childhood, recruited 1,000 mothers with low incomes from postpartum wards in a dozen hospitals in four US metropolitan areas: New Orleans, New York City, Omaha, and Minneapolis/St. Paul.

Shortly after they gave birth, participating mothers randomly received either a large monthly cash gift of $333 per month or a nominal monthly cash gift of $20 per month. The gifts were disbursed on debit cards, and the mothers, most of whom were Black or Latina, were free to spend the cash gifts in whatever way they chose.

The new study reports the initial findings on baby brain activity after the first 12 months of the poverty reduction intervention. The mothers will continue to receive the cash gifts, funded by charitable foundations, until their children are 4 years and 4 months old.

Because of the randomized controlled trial design, the authors were able to distinguish correlation from causation, concluding that giving money directly to mothers living in poverty can translate to changes in their infants’ brain activity.

“We have known for many years that growing up in poverty puts children at risk for lower school achievement, reduced earnings, and poorer health,” says senior author Kimberly Noble, professor of neuroscience and education at Columbia University Teachers College. Poverty has also been associated with differences in children’s brain development.

“However,” notes Noble, “until now, we haven’t been able to say whether poverty itself causes differences in child development, or whether growing up in poverty is simply associated with other factors that cause those differences.”

The study reports that infants whose mothers received $333 per month had more high-frequency brain activity compared with infants whose mothers received $20 per month.

“Global evidence is thin on how children are affected by cash transfers, especially with respect to very young children,” says Lisa Gennetian, a professor of early learning policy studies at Duke University, coauthor of the study, and co-principal investigator of Baby’s First Years. “This is mostly because it is so hard and expensive to objectively capture children’s development.”

“This study’s findings on infant brain activity are unprecedented and really speak to how anti-poverty policies—including the types of expanded child tax credits being debated in the US—can and should be viewed as investments in children.”

The authors note that they do not yet know whether these differences will persist over time, or whether they will lead to differences in children’s cognitive or behavioral development, which will be measured in future waves of the study.

Likewise, the authors do not yet know which particular experiences were involved in generating the impacts on brain development. Work is under way to examine potential mechanisms, including how mothers spent the money, and how having more money may have changed parenting behaviors, family relationships, and family stress.

The timing of the research during the pandemic is important, Gennetian says. Prior to the pandemic, nearly 1 in 5 US children lived in poverty, according to official poverty measures. Safety net programs, like the supplemental nutrition program (or food stamps) and policies that boost the income of working families such as earned income tax credits, have helped make strides towards reducing child poverty.

“The risks for children of experiencing poverty are very high since the onset of the pandemic, and even higher for Black, Latinx, and children from underrepresented groups whose families have been hardest hit by the pandemic along both public health and economic and employment dimensions.

“The state of poverty for today’s children in the US since the pandemic is, in fact, in limbo,” Gennetian says. “During the pandemic, we have learned that support like the stimulus checks and the monthly disbursement of the expanded child tax credit are really helping families with children to buy food or pay rent.”

The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Additional coauthors are from Teachers College, Columbia University; the University of Wisconsin, Madison; the University of California, Irvine; Duke University; New York University; and the University of Maryland.

Funding came from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health; Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation; Annie E. Casey Foundation; Arrow Impact; Bezos Family Foundation; Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Bill Hammack and Janice Parmelee, BCBS of Louisiana Foundation; Brady Education Fund; Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (Silicon Valley Community Foundation); Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies; Child Welfare Fund; Ford Foundation; Greater New Orleans Foundation; Heising-Simons Foundation; Jacobs Foundation; The JPB Foundation; J-PAL North America; Andrew and Julie Klingenstein Family Fund; Esther A. and Joseph Klingenstein Fund; New York City Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity; Perigee Fund; Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; Sherwood Foundation; Valhalla Foundation; Weitz Family Foundation; W.K. Kellogg Foundation; and three anonymous donors.

Source: Duke University