Giving Low-income Families Cash Aid Changed Brain Activity in Babies

Woman holding her newborn baby.

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study provided low-income mothers with cash stipends for the first year of their children’s lives.
  • Researchers found that children whose mothers received higher sums of cash aid had faster-paced brain activity in key areas.
  • Researchers hope this study informs policy decisions and provides insight into how aid impacts children’s cognitive brain development and overall health.

A new study that provided low-income mothers with cash stipends for the first year of their children’s lives found that cash aid impacted the brain activity of these infants.

Researchers enrolled 1,000 diverse low-income mothers from four metropolitan areas: New York, New Orleans, the Twin Cities, and Omaha. Shortly after the mothers gave birth, they were randomized into low- and high–cash gift groups. The low-cash group received $20 a month whereas the high-cash gift group received $333 a month. The amount awarded was informed by federal programs, such as SNAP benefits and other food assistance programs.

Data was collected from the mother and child up to when the child hit one year of age. Using portable electroencephalography (EEG), researchers were able to measure the children’s brain activity.

“One of our findings showed that infants in the high cash gift group, the moms who got more money, showed more fast-paced brain activity in key regions of the brain,” Sonya Troller-Renfree, PhD, postdoctoral research associate at Columbia University, told Verywell. “In some other studies, these regions support later thinking and learning.” She added that brains are malleable to experience, a concept known as neuroplasticity.

“We think that money may be changing the environment that the brain is in and that changes how the brain functions,” Troller-Renfree said. “It doesn’t, however, make the brain better or worse.”

It still remains to be seen if these changes in brain patterns will lead to higher skills and learning.

The February study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

What This Means For You

Currently, monthly child tax credit payments have been discontinued for 2022. This may change as Congress works to pass a version of the Build Back Better policy, which calls for financial support for families.

What This Means for Policy

This research was inspired and motivated by the need for rigorous data that documents how poverty shapes children and their development. It also arrives at a time when the Biden administration is proposing child care policy packages as part of the Build Back Better bill.

“Many of us were involved in research in the 90s that was really trying to look at the impact of poverty on children as a way of informing policy decisions because a lot of what policy decisions are made on is evidence that relates to employment, or adult well-being, but very little of it was focused on children,” Katherine Magnuson, PhD, professor of social work at the Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work and director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Verywell.

Previous research has found a correlation between child poverty and lower brainwave power in the mid- to high-frequency bands of the EEG when compared to peers of the same age who weren’t living in poverty.

Many cash aid policies, such as the Child Tax Credit—a law that provided monetary support to parents with children under the age of 17 through 2021—have been heavily politicized as being a “government handout,” which stigmatizes low-income families.

Magnuson hopes their study can provide scientific evidence on the impact that cash aid can have on infants, as well as destigmatize low-income families.

Low-income mothers and families “have been historically, structurally, and financially excluded by policies that make it incredibly hard for them to succeed,” Magnuson said.

“A lot of the political discussion is about how you can’t trust mothers to do the right thing,” Magnuson explained. “The key takeaway is that you can trust these communities and these families to invest in their children, and they are incredibly resilient and strong despite all of the systems that are stacked up to make life harder for them.”

Future Research

Currently, the team is ramping up their efforts to complete a four-year assessment for the kids’ fourth birthdays.

“We’re going to measure brain activity again, so we can look to see if this pattern is still there,” Troller-Renfree noted.

Magnuson and Troller-Renfree’s original plan was to study the children’s development until the age of three. The pandemic, however, disrupted those plans.

“We were halfway through in-person data collection with one-year-olds,” Magnuson explained. “And then March 2020 happens and we had to stop all in-person data collection.”

Therefore, the data was collected until in-person data collection was no longer feasible due to the pandemic. Magnuson and Troller-Renfree will continue in-person data collection and follow the children through future birthdays, conducting in-person assessments that measure cognitive development, language development, and health status, to better understand how poverty impacts brain frequency and function.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Troller-Renfree SV, Costanzo MA, Duncan GJ, et al. The impact of a poverty reduction intervention on infant brain activity. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2022;119(5):e2115649119. doi:10.1073/pnas.2115649119

  2. Blair C, Raver CC. Poverty, stress, and brain development: new directions for prevention and intervention. Acad Pediatr. 2016;16(3 Suppl):S30-S36. doi:10.1016/j.acap.2016.01.010

By Kayla Hui, MPH
Kayla Hui, MPH is the health and wellness ecommerce writer at Verywell Health.She earned her master's degree in public health from the Boston University School of Public Health and BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.