Study links payments to low-income families to children’s cognitive development
A new study published on Monday found that providing cash payments to low-income families may have an impact on infant brain development and function, leading to higher cognitive skills.
The study, called the Baby’s First Years study, enrolled a thousand pairs of mother and infants into a multiyear program in the metropolitan areas of New York, New Orleans, Omaha and the Twin Cities. Participants were enrolled beginning in May 2019.
The mothers were divided into two groups, with 40 percent receiving a “high-cash gift” of $333 a month, while the remaining 60 percent received a “low-cash gift” of for the first several years of their children’s lives.
All infants involved in the study were considered to be generally healthy, and the mothers reported an average annual household income of a little more than $20,000. The majority of the mothers and infants involved were Black or Hispanic.
Recording the resting brain activity of 435 of the infants, regardless of the size of the cash gift their mother received, researchers observed higher power in 3 out of 4 brain waves in the high-cash group.
The researchers acknowledged that family income had previously been associated with developmental differences in child brain development, but it had been unclear in the past whether it was directly associated with poverty or if it had more to do with factors that correlate with poverty.
Due to the randomized nature of the study, researchers concluded that giving money to families living in poverty resulted in a change in their infants’ brain activity.
The study noted that the patterns of neural activity observed in the high-cash group were associated with higher language, cognitive and social-emotional scores later in life.
However, the study was also limited in multiple aspects. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, data could not be collected on the entire 1,000 mother-infant study group. The pandemic also affected efforts to collect data in person.
Lisa Gennetian, a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy who is also a co-author of the study, called the results of the study “unprecedented.”
“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 U.S — can and should be viewed as investments in children,” said Gennetian.
The Baby’s First Years study was conducted by researchers affiliated with Duke University, New York University, Columbia University, University of California Irvine, University of Maryland and University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The study was funded by two research grants from the National Institutes of Health. It received additional support from charitable foundations including the Bezos Family Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the the New York City Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
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