Scientists and clinicians know that children who are born into poverty tend to underperform in school, they are at greater risk for health problems, and their lifetime earnings are depressed. New research investigated whether poverty was directly to blame for these observations, or whether other things might be influencing them. Reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the work showed that poverty is directly affecting brain activity in children, suggesting that poverty is to blame for health problems and lower achievement.
In this study, the researchers followed children that participated in a study called "Baby's First Years," part of a research project investigating the impact of direct poverty reduction in the form of cash payments to impoverished families. One thousand low-income mothers were recruited in this trial, and participants were randomly selected to receive payments of either $333 per month or a much smaller payment of $20 per month shortly after they'd had their children. The mothers could spend the money, which was in the form of debit cards, on whatever they wanted. The payments will continue until the children reach the age of four years and four months.
The study design and analysis were meant to distinguish correlation and causation. Electrical activity in the infants' brains was measured with electroencephalography (EEG), which was done by putting a cap on their heads in their homes, and taking recordings. The results indicated that direct payments changed high frequency brain waves, which have been associated with the development of learning and thinking, in infants. After one year, the infants whose mothers had gotten higher payments of $333 every month displayed more high frequency electrical activity in their brains compared to infants whose moms had gotten the lower $20 payment.
The researchers noted that because of how the EEGs were conducted, they could not include as many participants when the pandemic hit. The results still showed significant differences.
Our "environments and experiences" affect the health of our brains, "and we are not saying that one group has 'better' brains. But, because of the randomized design, we know that the $333 per month must have changed children's experiences or environments, and that their brains adapted to those changed circumstances," said senior study author Kimberly Noble, a Professor of Neuroscience & Education at Teachers College at Columbia University.
The study authors noted that they don't yet know whether these differences in brain activity will persist and how they might impact the development, health, cognition, or behavior of the children. Follow-up studies will aim to learn more about those questions, and others, including how the extra money was used.
"Families are all different," noted study co-author Katherine Magnuson, Vilas Achievement Professor and Director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Thus, there may not be just one way in which money positively affects families; money may matter in a lot of small ways."
This research is "unprecedented and really speak to how anti-poverty policies, including" US tax credits "can and should be viewed as investments in children," added study co-author Lisa Gennetian, the Pritzker Professor of Early Learning Policy Studies at Duke University.