The initial findings of a landmark study on child development indicate that providing a supplemental monthly compensation to low-income mothers changes the brain development of their infants.

Kimberly Noble is lead neuroscientist of the study, “Baby’s First Years,” an interdisciplinary collaboration across neuroscience, economics, psychology, and social policy.

“We have known for many years that growing up in poverty puts children at risk for lower school achievement, reduced earnings, and poorer health,” said Noble, Professor of Neuroscience and Education. “However, until now, we haven’t been able to say whether poverty itself causes differences in child development, or whether growing up in poverty is simply associated with other factors that cause those differences.”

Noble and TC on Monday joined researchers at five other universities in sharing the first findings from the study, “The impact of a poverty intervention on infant brain activity,” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

The initial findings showed that, after one year of monthly cash support, infants in low-income families were more likely to show brain activity patterns that have been associated with the development of thinking and learning.

Kim Noble

Kimberly Noble, Professor of Neuroscience and Education, and Director of the Neurocognition, Early Experience and Development (NEED) Lab. (Photo: TC Archives)

Launched in 2018, the project recruited 1,000 mothers shortly after they gave birth in New York City, Omaha, Minneapolis-St. Paul and New Orleans. The randomized controlled trial distributed debit cards to all participating mothers. Some are given a monthly disbursement of $333; others receive $20 per month. The PNAS study reported the differences in brain activity, or brainwaves, of 435 of the 1000 participating children.

The disbursements began after birth and will continue until each child in the study reaches the age of four years and four months.

The study places no restrictions on how the charitable foundation-funded gifts are spent.

“Baby's First Years” is the first direct poverty reduction evaluation in the United States to focus on early childhood.

[Read about the research in the New York Times.] 

[Also, find more about the study on Vox.] 

Planning for the study began in 2012, long before the Biden Administration’s one-year expansion of the Child Tax Credit, which expired in December and provided $250 to $300 per month per child for most U.S. families. While the policy bore some resemblance to the “Baby’s First Years” cash gifts, the team points to important differences, most notably that the expanded Child Tax Credit provided payments for all children in the home through age 17.

“Global evidence is thin on how children are affected by cash transfers, especially with respect to very young children,” said Duke University Professor Lisa Gennetian, another principal investigator of the “Baby's First Year” project, and co-author on the PNAS study.

“This is mostly because it is so hard and expensive to objectively capture children’s development. This study’s findings on infant brain activity are unprecedented and really speak to how anti-poverty policies — including the types of expanded child tax credits being debated in the U.S. — can and should be viewed as investments in children.”

The University of Wisconsin, Madison, The Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke, the University of California, Irvine, New York University and the University of Maryland are TC’s partners in this research at the intersection of neuroscience and policy.

Sonya Troller-Renfree, a TC postdoctoral research associate and study lead author, is at the forefront of brain activity measurement. The technique, known as electroencephalography (EEG), places a cap which, when placed on the head, records the brain's electrical activity of each infant.

[Read a press release about the initial findings.]

Analyzing the outcomes in the randomized controlled trial model, researchers can “distinguish correlation from causation;” in other words, they can estimate the effect of a $333 monthly cash transfer on infant brain activity.

The researchers caution that brain activity measurements may shift in subsequent phases of the study.

Changes in parenting behavior, monthly expenditures, family stress and behavior are among the criteria researchers hope to analyze in the months and years ahead.

“Families are all different, and the potential promise of money as a way of directly supporting families is that it allows parents to make choices about what their children most need,” said University of Wisconsin Professor, co-author and lead social scientist Katherine Magnuson. “Thus, there may not be just one way in which money positively affects families; money may matter in a lot of small ways.”