Supporting low-income families with cash could protect infants from the deleterious effects poverty has on brain development, research published Monday finds.
The preliminary results from an ongoing clinical trial found that infants whose families received an extra $4,000 in annual income were more likely to show brain activity patterns associated with the development of thinking and learning.
The findings come just weeks after the Child Tax Credit, which provided additional money to low-income parents, expired.
Previous research has shown that growing up in poverty has an impact on brain development, including lower rates of college attendance and high school graduation among children who grew up poor. In the past decade, dozens of studies have shown differences in brain matter and brain activity in both kids and adults living in poverty.
But the new study goes a step further, demonstrating the cause-and-effect link between poverty and brain development.
“All of the past work has been correlational,” said Dr. Kimberly Noble, a professor of neuroscience and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, who co-authored the study. “We could say based on past work that poverty is related to these differences, but we couldn’t say poverty is causing these differences. From a scientific perspective, the only way to answer that question is through a randomized clinical trial.”
That clinical trial is the Baby’s First Years trial, the first of its kind. It started in 2018 with the goal of asking a simple question about a complicated issue: What impact does regular cash income for low-income families have on brain development of the children in these families?
Noble, along with researchers from six universities, recruited low-income women who had recently given birth in New Orleans; New York City; Omaha, Nebraska; and Minnesota’s Twin Cities. The mothers were randomized to receive either a debit card with a monthly gift of $333 or a nominal monthly gift of $20. This amounted to an extra $3,996 or $240 in annual income. There were no stipulations on how the money could be spent by the mothers, who are mostly Black and Latina.
By intervening in this way, the researchers are able to see whether or not there is a direct cause-and-effect link between cash support for low-income families and childhood development. The larger amount was chosen because it’s a feasible amount that could be included in policies that provide stipends to families living in poverty.
Throughout the four-year trial, the team will make yearly home visits to measure the children’s brain activity, have the mothers fill out a questionnaire and observe the mother and baby together.
Results from the first year of the trial were published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
These findings focused on brain activity in 435 one-year-olds in the study.
According to Noble, everyone has both slow and fast brain activity patterns. As kids get older, they tend to have more fast, or high frequency, brain activity. This fast brain activity early in childhood is associated with the subsequent development of skills needed for learning.
The babies in the families that received more money from the study had more of these fast brain waves compared to those in families that received the lower amount.
Dr. Joan Luby, a Samuel and Mae S. Ludwig professor of child psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said that brain development does not happen evenly across a lifespan.
Neuroscientists are beginning to home in on specific periods of time, particularly in early childhood, in which brain development happens rapidly, said Luby, who was not involved with the new study. During these times, the brain is extremely sensitive to environmental factors.
“There are windows of opportunity or vulnerability when the brain changes in response to the psychosocial environment. It’s important to enrich, not deprive, children during these crucial periods of time,” she said. The cash support given in trial “provides families living in poverty with the resources that they can use to provide food, get child care, give the parents a little bit of latitude so they can potentially spend more time with their child. Those are all the things this small cash infusion does during this very critical period of time.”
The research team is working to gather more information about how the money was spent and what circumstances may have led to the changes in brain activity. But because the trial was randomized and controlled, “we know that the $333 per month must have changed children’s experiences or environments, and that their brains adapted to those changed circumstances,” Noble said.
Luby said that the data couldn’t have come at a better time.
The Child Tax Credit, which provided low-income families with up to $300 a month per child as a part of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, expired Jan. 14, with the Senate unable to come up with an agreement on whether to extend the support.
Cash subsidies play an important role in addition to funds specifically allocated for food or child care, experts say.
“The power of cash is that it can be used as the family needs it in the moment, to fix the car or buy diapers. It’s a powerful way to empower people to take care of themselves and that’s critical when it comes to taking care of kids,” said Katherine Magnuson, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who also co-authored the study.
“Economic resources are a way parents invest in their children. You can’t just think of it as the adults who are or are not getting the money, we have to take a child-focused lens to how we think about supporting families,” she said.
According to Dr. Martha Farah, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Center for Neuroscience and Society, who was not involved with the research, the initial results already illustrate subtle differences in brain activity that indicate differences in cognitive and emotional development.
“The most important findings will come in the future, when the kids are grown enough to show everyone their cognitive and linguistic abilities, their self-control and other important achievements of early development,” she said.
CORRECTION: (Jan. 24, 2022 5:50 p.m. ET) A previous version of this article referred incorrectly to the researchers’ universities. The low-income mothers in the study were recruited in New Orleans; New York City; Omaha, Nebraska; and Minnesota’s Twin Cities; the universities are not in all of those cities.