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Boosting low-income mothers’ income increased their babies’ brain activity

Increasing low-income mothers’ incomes may change their babies’ brains, according to a first-of-its kind study published this week.

Babies whose low-income mothers received cash gifts of about $4,000 for a year showed more high-frequency brain activity than babies whose mothers received just $240 a year.

The Baby’s First Years study recruited 1,000 mothers of newborns across four metro areas in the United States. The mothers were assigned to one of two groups:  each mother in one group received $333 a month and the other mothers received $20 a month. The mothers reported an average income of about $20,000 a year, so the parents who were in the high-cash group had their incomes go up about 20%.

The study showed there may be a causal relationship between direct cash payments to families and babies’ brain development.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Lisa Gennetian, a professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke, co-authored the study with researchers from Columbia University, New York University, the University of Maryland, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the University of California at Irvine.

Gennetian said in an email that the results “offer an argument for providing cash to families with children” in line with the “targeted structure of the 2021 expanded child tax credit.”

The expanded child tax credit increased the maximum from $2,000 a year to $3,600 a year for children younger than six and to $3,000 a year for children six- to 17-years old. In the last six months of 2021, parents received the credit in monthly payments. Families who had been excluded from claiming the credit because they made too little money became eligible.

An extension of the expanded credit was in President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which has not made it through the U.S. Senate.

For the study, analysts collected EEG data for 435 babies and found that those in homes that got the higher cash payments had more powerful high-frequency brain activity that’s associated with language and cognitive skills in older children. EEGs couldn’t be done for all 1,000 children because of the pandemic.

The authors said they aren’t suggesting that one year of extra money will have lasting effects or that money eliminates the need for well-child pediatric visits or high-quality childhood education.

“Nonetheless, by targeting families during children’s earliest years, BFY has found important evidence of the effects of increased income during a time when children’s brains are particularly sensitive to experience,” they wrote.

The cash gifts are going to continue until the children are a little more than four years old, and data will be collected around each birthday.

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