Several hundred dollars a month for families helps babies’ learning

I have always liked that British phrase, “joined-up thinking.” It reminds me a little of learning to do cursive writing, joining all those letters together. But increasingly, I have come to think that ‘joined-up thinking’, these days, more often comes from the bottom of the system rather than the top.

Take universal basic income, for one. There have been small pilot projects in various North American cities over the years that looked primarily at whether it affects peoples’ work habits if they are given a fixed amount of money each month. A massive experiment has been going on in Kenya, to look at the impact of giving people in communities a basic security of income. Cash aid has been shown to be more effective in letting refugees meet their needs, while also supporting local economies, than providing goods does.

The idea of creating savings accounts for children at birth has been shown to greatly increase the likelihood that children in low income families will go to college or university. “In the early 1990s, Michael Sherraden, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., articulated the idea of giving all individuals tax-advantaged savings accounts at birth,” says one account.. “Sherraden posited that income support policies, such as welfare, were not enough to help poor families climb out of poverty and that asset-building policies such as CSAs and Individual Development Accounts (IDAs), in which savings of low-income depositors are matched, were needed.”

A national demonstration program called the SEED Initiative (Savings for Education, Entrepreneurship and Downpayment) was launched in 2003. “More than 1,000 matched savings accounts were opened for low- and moderate-income children at 13 sites nationwide. Nonprofit community partners helped manage the accounts and deliver support services.”

The researchers found that automatically creating college savings programs for children at birth made families more likely to save for their higher education, especially if low-income parents did not attend college. In 2007, the SEED for Oklahoma Kids program randomly created $1,000 development accounts for more than 1,300 children and by 2019, those families had saved on average $3,243; in a control group, only a few families created such accounts on their own. A Maine program run privately since 2009 shows similar increased saving. New York City plans to create savings accounts for every kindergarten student starting in 2022.

So it didn’t surprise me this week when I started seeing stories that talked about how a poverty reduction program has been shown to have a measurable impact on improving children’s brain function. It made sense to me that if parents didn’t have to worry about how to pay for food and shelter and other essentials of life, that their children would do better.

Studies have shown us, after all, how essential good childhood experiences are in making us well functioning adults. Many of our societal challenges can be traced back to adverse childhood experiences.

Pexels Pixabay photo.

The “Baby’s First Years” study measured brain activity among 435 one-year-old children, part of a randomized controlled trial which recruited 1,000 mothers with low incomes from postpartum wards in a dozen hospitals in four American cities – New Orleans, New York City, Omaha, and Minneapolis/St Paul. Some of the mothers got a monthly cash gift of $333 each month; others got just $20 a month. It is the first study in the United States to assess the impact of poverty reduction on family life and  infant and toddlers’ cognitive, emotional, and brain development.

“Baby’s First Years is a pathbreaking study of the causal impact of monthly, unconditional cash gifts to low-income mothers and their children in the first four years of the child’s life,” says the study website. “The gifts are funded through charitable foundations. The study will identify whether reducing poverty can affect early childhood development and the family processes that support children’s development.”

The researchers began planning the study in 2012, long before the US government’s one-year expansion of the Child Tax Credit, which had provided $250 to $300 per month per child for most U.S. families before it expired in December.

“We hear from the mothers in our study how challenging it is to raise children without enough money,” says study co-author Katherine Magnuson, noting that “a few hundred dollars a month has the potential to do a lot of good for these families, and we are grateful that we will continue to learn from them about how the money has helped them meet their goals.”

“Global evidence is thin on how children are affected by cash transfers, especially with respect to very young children,” co-author Lisa Gennetian, Pritzker Professor of Early Learning Policy Studies at Duke University told the Neuroscience News. “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.”

It is a multi-year study so data collection will continue for several years, both qualitative and quantitative.


Baby’s First Years website.

Cash Aid to Poor Mothers Increases Brain Activity in Babies, Study Finds. New York Times, Jan. 24, 2022

Can giving parents cash help with babies’ brain development? Vox, Jan. 24, 2022.

Cash Support for Low-Income Families Impacts Infant Brain Activity. Neuroscience News, Jan. 24, 2022.

Children’s Savings Accounts The Case for Creating a Lifelong Savings Platform at Birth as a Foundation for a “Save-and-Invest” Economy. Reid Cramer & David Newville, Dec. 2009, New America Foundation.