Monthly checks to low-income families increases children’s brain development

NEW YORK — Giving monthly checks to low-income families may lead to greater brain development in children, a new study finds. Researchers from Columbia University found one-year-old infants displayed greater brain activity related to learning and thinking skills if their parents were receiving regular cash support.

“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 Kimberly Noble, a Columbia professor of neuroscience and education, in a university release.

Previous studies have also linked poverty to differences in children’s brain development.

“However, 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,” Noble adds.

How much support do parents need?

The researchers measured the brain activity of 435 one-year-old infants enrolled in a “Baby’s First Years” clinical trial, looking at the effect of poverty reduction on early childhood. Mothers in this trial received either $333 a month or $20 a month distributed through debit cards. The team did not put a limit on how much cash the parents could spend. The mothers will continue to receive cash until their child is four years and four months-old.

Study authors measured brain activity through a technique called electroencephalography (EEG), where a cap on an infant’s head records the brain’s electrical activity — or brainwaves. Previous research with EEG found that fast brainwaves show a link to the development of thinking and learning abilities.

Infants of mothers who received $333 a month had more brain activity than infants whose mothers only received $20 a month. The changes in brain activity are likely from babies naturally adapting to their experiences, according to the researchers.

“All healthy brains are shaped by their environments and experiences, and we are not saying that one group has ‘better’ brains. But, because of the randomized design, we know that the $333 per month must have changed children’s experiences or environments, and that their brains adapted to those changed circumstances,” says Dr. Noble.

A reason to continue stimulus payments?

It is still unclear if the boost in brain activity will persist over time or if there will be long-term changes to the children’s cognitive or behavioral development as they age. Another section of research is looking into the potential mechanisms or experiences behind the brain changes such as how mothers spent the money, how money changed parenting behaviors, family relationships, and family stress.

“Families are all different, and the potential promise of money as a way of directly supporting families is that it allows parents to make choices about what their children most need. Thus, there may not be just one way in which money positively affects families; money may matter in a lot of small ways,” concludes co-author Katherine Magnuson, Vilas Achievement Professor and Director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and lead social scientist for the larger Baby’s First Years study.

The study findings could help shape poverty laws and provisions such as the expanded child tax credits that are under debate in the United States which expired last December.

The findings appear in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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