Babies have better brain development if their family gets $300 a month, a new study finds — but Biden's $300 monthly check program just ended

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The payments will continue until the children in the program are at least 4 years old.Thomas Lai Yin Tang
  • A study found that giving low-income mothers regular cash payments improved babies' cognitive development.

  • Mothers in the study received $333 per month, roughly the same as Biden's recently ended child tax credit.

  • Income interventions should focus on parents of young children, researchers say.

Growing up poor literally affects the way a child's brain develops — and having just a little extra cash on hand can help children adapt to change better, a new study shows.

An experiment called Baby's First Years provided poor mothers with cash stipends of either $333 per month or $20 per month for the first year of their children's lives. The researchers, a group of collaborators from seven universities, found that having more money altered the infants' brain activity in ways that suggest stronger cognitive development.

That's because cash payments "help stabilize and support the children's home environment by paying bills that keep the lights on, or buying cleaning products to keep the home safe and clean, or paying rent," Dr. Katherine Anne Magnuson, a social policy professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who helped lead the study, told Insider.

It also reduces stress for parents, allowing them to "make different choices about how much to work and time spent with their infant," she added. "That can mean more time, attention and energy to positively engage with their infant."

The results of this experiment come as President Biden's monthly child tax credit has just ended. As the researchers found "strong evidence" that providing children with adequate funds from a young age is important for their long-term development, they recommend that federal policy conversations about income supplements should focus on that premise. Their findings join a prior body of research associating childhood poverty with school achievement, higher educational attainment, and future adult earnings. For the time being, the federal government has halted a monthly cash flow for families, but many state and local basic income programs throughout the country have picked up steam.

Cash is vital for poor families with children, researchers and local lawmakers wager

During the years of 2018 and 2019, researchers used electroencephalograms (EEG tests), to evaluate children when they reached 1 year of age. They found that those whose mothers received the $333 stipends exhibited more "fast" brain activity than those whose mothers were given the $20 ones. Other studies, the researchers write, have shown that fast brain activity is associated with cognitive development.

That's because "early childhood is indeed a more sensitive period for environmental enrichment than later in childhood," Dr. Greg Duncan, a professor of education at the University of California, Irvine, and researcher on the paper, told Insider. "Our study is adding more support to the idea that conditions early in life matter a great deal."

Researchers cite adaptability to change as one example of how early development aids throughout life, noting that higher family income tends to be associated with better memory, language skills, and executive functioning.

The payments will continue until the children are at least 4 years old, at which point the researchers intend to conduct more tests.

The differences in brain activity were only "relatively modest" between the two groups, the researchers write, also expressing some caution about what can be extrapolated from their current data. Charles A. Nelson III, a neuroscientist at Harvard University, told The New York Times that the full effect of the payments would not be clear until the children took cognitive tests.

As the credit ends in the US, many parents will have to scramble for extra work, and many more families will grapple with food insecurity. The researchers note that realities of being low-income likely play a role in children's well-being and brain development: once a child's needs are addressed, their development prospers.

Many cities around the world have been making that bet throughout the pandemic, with at least 33 in the US offering no-strings-attached cash to low-income households.

"A large body of research suggests that income-support to families, that reduce poverty during children's earliest years of development can have long-term positive effects on outcomes like education, and earnings," Dr. Lisa A. Gennetian, a public policy professor at Duke University and researcher on the report, told Insider. "We hope to continue to track children and families in this study to see how they fare throughout their childhood and even through adulthood."

Read the original article on Business Insider

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