Anti-Poverty Experiment Shows Extra Money Changes Babies’ Brains

(ORDO NEWS) — Putting money into the hands of mothers can help shape their children’s brains, according to a rigorous US randomized trial.

Family income has been repeatedly linked to past child development in observational studies, but this is the first time researchers have found direct experimental evidence of how poverty leads to such changes.

The results come from an ongoing study called “Children’s First Year” that attempts to assess how poverty alleviation can affect the cognitive and emotional development of very young children.

“We’ve known for years that children who grow up in poverty are at risk of poor academic performance, lower incomes and poorer health,” explains neuroscientist Kimberly Noble of Columbia University.

“However, until now, we could not say whether poverty itself causes differences in the development of children, or whether growing up in poverty is simply related to other factors that cause these differences.”

One thousand low-income mothers in the US were enrolled in the study shortly after the birth of their children.

These parents, who live in New York, New Orleans, Omaha, or Minneapolis/Saint Paul, were randomly allocated either $333 per month in unconditional cash payments or $20 per month in unconditional cash payments for the first years of their child’s life – without any conditions.

Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, only 435 families were able to take part in face-to-face testing so that researchers could measure the electrical activity of the child’s brain.

Despite the smaller sample size, the data show that providing financial support to low-income mothers can directly change infant brain activity in the first year of life.

For example, babies whose mothers received higher cash payments had higher brain rates than babies whose mothers received less.

Further research is needed to find out if these changes in brain activity persist for a long time or if they lead to improved cognitive development, but there is every reason to believe that they are.

Some small studies have recently shown that high-frequency brain activity is more common in children born into high-income families. This type of activity is also associated with higher scores on language, cognitive, and socio-emotional abilities, although these associations are not always consistent.

“All healthy brains are shaped by environment and experience, and we’re not saying that one group has ‘better’ brains,” says Noble.

“But, thanks to the randomized approach to the study, we know that $333 a month was supposed to change the experience or environment of the children, and that their brains adapted to these changed circumstances.”

Due to the nature of the study, the authors still do not know what environmental factors may have caused the higher frequency brainwaves observed during the study. Now they are looking into whether family expenses, parental behavior, family relationships or family stress influenced the results of the study.

Whatever the reason or reasons, the effect of money on the neurodevelopment of a child seems to be very strong.

According to economist Greg Duncan of the University of California-Irvine, the differences between the two groups “were similar in magnitude to those reported in large-scale educational events.”

The authors hope that their findings will one day lead to more effective anti-poverty policies. In particular, the Baby’s First Year study highlights the importance of putting children at the center of these interventions.

“Traditionally, the debate over income transfer policies aimed at low-income families in the United States has focused on the supply of maternal labor rather than the welfare of children,” the authors write.

“Our findings highlight the importance of taking the conversation in a different direction and focusing more on whether income transfer policies are conducive to child development or not.”

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