Giving Low-income Families the Money They Need Can Boost Babies' Brain Development

A recent study found that giving $333 to families facing poverty each month could help ensure children meet growth and developmental milestones.

Baby playing at bedroom with colorful construction pieces sittion on the floor

Poverty is relentless in its cruelty. Anyone who has endured living in poverty can tell you about how crushing it can feel to lack the safety of food and housing security. The mental and emotional load of constantly worrying about the basics like reliable transportation, child care, and employment can feel like it takes years off one's life.

In a newly published study that looked at giving low-income families cash with no spending limitations, Kimberly Noble, M.D., Ph.D. and colleagues from seven different universities found what appears to be a cause and effect link between poverty and childhood development.

Researchers conducted a clinical trial called Baby's First Years that included 1,000 mothers who were given recurring monthly cash gifts of either $333 or $20. Researchers then began collecting data on the babies at 12, 24, 36, and 48 months old.

So, what did they find? The brain has waves of activity that are fast and slow, but the faster the waves, the more activity is happening, which is what you'd want to see in a developing child. Dr. Noble and her colleagues saw that babies of mothers who received the $333 extra each month had faster brain waves than babies whose moms received lower cash payments. Those fast waves mean that their brains were more likely to hit important growth and developmental milestones.

The timing of this study may feel urgent to some as our nation debates whether or not to continue the wildly popular Child Tax Credit that was in President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package. Families who opted in received up to $300 per child per month in 2021. That tax credit expired in January 2022; many experts are looking at how that tax credit helped pull 3 million kids out of poverty, cutting the national poverty rate by 25%.

So, how does poverty affect a child's ability to learn? Aside from the exciting data collected by Dr. Noble and her colleagues, daily impacts of poverty on a child include hunger, anxiety, and inability to regulate emotions, all of which create a perfect storm that can keep a child from focusing on academics.

"Being on the frontlines working with students every day, I see the impact of poverty firsthand," says Kimberly Raymond, an elementary school counselor at the Leroy H. Smith School in Winterport, Maine. "Any way that resources can be provided to help alleviate the burden of financial stress can have a big impact on how well students can learn."

Raymond explains that multiple factors contribute to the impact of poverty on a student, but one aspect that concerns her right now is the increase of stressors due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"School is just as much about social-emotional growth as it is academic growth, and poverty can take an emotional toll on students. These effects have only been increased during the pandemic," she says. "I often see students who are tired or anxious due to some of these basic needs not being met but often also struggling to manage emotions. When students aren't able to use empathy skills, manage emotions, and use problem-solving skills, this can make academics really challenging."

Creating a social safety net that would include a standard of income, including parental leave, could help remove many barriers that low-income families get stuck behind. When you don't have to worry about putting food on the table or having to choose between paying a medical bill or the rent, a family can thrive. But we live in highly charged times when the political divide feels too wide, and part of that divide is how some Americans view poverty.

"One of my biggest concerns currently about how poverty can have a negative effect on children's physical, emotional, and social growth is the tendency of our society to rely on a cognitive attribution bias unknowingly," says Lindsay Weisner, a Clinical Psychologist in Long Island, New York, the host of the Neurotic Nourishment Podcast, and the author of the Psychology Today blog: The Venn Diagram Life.

"This lengthy technical term describes a cognitive error in thinking that allows me to justify my actions while condemning the actions of others. A common example is that if I go to a grocery store and I'm rude to the clerk, I expect the clerk to understand that I'm having a bad day. Whereas if I go to a grocery store and the clerk is rude to me, I simply assume they are a rude person in character."

Weisner points out a long history of discrimination against people living in poverty that disproportionately affects BIPOC families.

"Unfortunately, this error in thinking is often a way that the average person tries to protect themselves from fear of poverty, or of becoming like 'the other.' One of the greatest negative effects that children in poverty often face is judgment from others who assume that these children, and their families, are lazy or 'taking advantage of the system.'

The Baby's First Years clinical trial will continue to collect data for three more years. We can only hope that after our recent experience with the Child Tax Credit in 2021, we can find a permanent solution that will pull families out of poverty and prevent them from falling back into it ever again.

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