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Jan. 25, 2022, 10:38 a.m. EST

Researchers ‘surprised’ by what happened when low-income moms received regular cash payments — with no strings attached

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By Elisabeth Buchwald

More than 16% of children in the U.S. live in poverty, but children are far more likely to live in poverty if they’re being raised by a single mother rather than a single father.

The poverty rate for children under six being raised by single dads is nearly equivalent to the national poverty rate for all children under six, but the poverty rate for children that age being raised by single moms is three times higher than the national rate, according to 2020 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

That disparity is part of what inspired nine researchers to launch an experiment called Baby’s First Years, to study whether giving low-income mothers regular cash payments early on in their children’s lives could make a difference. Their evidence, documented over the course of a year, strongly suggests that it can.

The researchers found that infants whose mothers received $333 per month “had more high-frequency brain activity” — a sign of better language development and brain development — compared with infants whose mothers received $20 per month.

Researchers released the first findings from the study Monday, and plan to release more findings in the future.

“We were somewhat surprised that we saw these impacts this quickly, after just one year of unconditional cash support,” said Kimberly Noble, a senior author of the study, who teaches neuroscience and education at  Columbia University’s Teachers College. “In some ways, this underscores how sensitive children are to their environments very early in childhood.”

In the experiment, researchers selected 435 mothers starting in May 2018 who were 18 years and older with a household income below the federal poverty line. Researchers recruited mothers from post-partum hospital wards shortly after giving birth in New York City and in the greater metropolitan areas of New Orleans, Omaha, Minneapolis and St. Paul. (In 2018, a family of two with a household income below $16,460 was considered to be living below the federal poverty line.)

These mothers agreed to participate in the study before they were aware that they would be receiving free no-strings-attached cash payments. Later on, they also agreed to have their child’s brain activity and overall health measured with annual EEG scans for approximately four years.

Mothers who agreed to be part of the study received their first monthly check immediately.

Previous research has suggested a strong correlation between early childhood poverty and lower academic achievement compared to children who aren’t living in poverty. What’s more, the surface area of crucial parts in the brain that support language and executive functioning is smaller among children who are impoverished, according to peer-reviewed research published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Originally, the Baby’s First Years researchers recruited a larger sample, but because of the pandemic, fewer mothers were able to participate.

Some 251 mothers were selected at random to receive $333 per month while the remaining 184 received $20 a month. The experiment received funding from various philanthropic organizations, including the Bezos Family Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and individual donors.

The authors of the study are still in the process of analyzing how mothers in both cohorts spent the money, as well as “how having more money may have changed parenting behaviors, family relationships, and family stress.”

But they suspect that the money could have enabled some parents, either moms or dads, to work less or “choose a job with slightly lower pay, but with shorter commute time so that they have more time with their babies,” said Katherine Magnuson, a social-work professor at the University of Wisconsin and one of nine lead researchers collaborating on the study.

“It may allow other mothers and families to pay for higher-quality child care,” she added.

“Generally, we can think about how the cash can help stabilize and support the children’s home environment like helping pay bills that keep the lights on, or buy cleaning products to keep the home safe and clean or paying rent,” said Lisa Gennetian, one of the study’s lead researchers who teaches at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

What do the study’s results say about child tax credit payments?

The cash payments in the Baby’s First Years study shared similarities with the monthly child tax credit payments some U.S. parents received for six months starting last July and ending this month.

Under the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, parents below a certain income threshold received monthly payments of up to $300 a month per child under the age of six or up to $250 per month per child between the ages of 6 and 17.

Many families qualified for much larger monthly payments if they had more than one child compared to the monthly payments mothers who participated in the study received. 

But the results from the Baby’s First Years study “point to the impact cash support can have on children’s development, and how policies like the CTC can be a mechanism to support parental investments in children,” Magnuson told MarketWatch.

The authors of the study don’t yet know whether children whose mothers received $333 a month will have any sustained development changes compared to those whose mothers got $20 a month, Nobel said. But the answer is of primary importance to them and will be studied more as the children approach their fourth birthdays.

The other researchers on the study are Greg Duncan of University of California, Irvine; Sonya Troller-Renfreea of Columbia’s Teachers College, Molly Costanzo and Sarah Halpern-Meekin of University of Wisconsin–Madison, Hirokazu Yoshikaw of NYU; and Nathan Fox, of the University of Maryland, College Park.

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