Updated Jan 25, 2022 - Science

Study: Cash aid to poor mothers improved babies' brain functioning

baby playing in grass
Photo: Nik Taylor/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Providing cash aid to poor mothers during the first year of their babies' lives helped improve the infants' brain activity, according to a new study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences journal.

Why it matters: The findings of the study underscore the role that financial aid can play in children's early development and could potentially have social policy implications.

  • President Biden's child tax credit program, where families received up to $300 per month for children under 6, expired at the end of 2021.

The big picture: The study, entitled Baby's First Years, recruited 1,000 mothers with newborn infants and divided them into two groups: one who would receive cash payments of $333 a month and another who would receive $20 a month.

  • Researchers evaluated the children after one year, and found that babies in the high cash group displayed more of the fast brain activity typically associated with cognitive development, the study noted.
  • However, it added that whether poverty "causes differences in neurodevelopment, or is merely associated with factors that cause such differences, remains unclear."
  • Though statistically significant by most standards, the changes in the infants' brain activities were modest, and other experts have noted that more cognitive tests would be required to understand the effect of the payments, the New York Times reported.

What they're saying: “This is a big scientific finding,” Martha J. Farah, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania who helped conduct the study, told the Times.

  • “It’s proof that just giving the families more money, even a modest amount of more money, leads to better brain development," she added.
  • “It’s potentially a groundbreaking study,” Charles Nelson, a Harvard researcher who served as a consultant to the study, told the Times.
  • “If I was a policymaker, I’d pay attention to this, but it would be premature of me to pass a bill that gives every family $300 a month," he added.

What to watch: The experiment's payments will continue until the children are 4 years old and the researchers plan to conduct more tests in the future, according to the Times.

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