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Study: Giving Money to Low-Income Mothers Improves Their Infant’s Brain Development

A new study found that giving cash to low-income moms for the first year of their children’s lives actually changed the brain activity of the children themselves, improving their mental development.

The results were surprising, and come in the midst of a fierce political debate in the U.S. about the social safety net. Researchers collected 1,000 low income moms with newborns and divided them into two groups — one that received $20 a month and one that received $333 a month. The mothers who received $333 a month for a full year saw their children’s brain functioning markedly improve over mothers who received the smaller stipend.

“This is a big scientific finding,” Martha J. Farah, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. “It’s proof that just giving the families more money, even a modest amount of more money, leads to better brain development.” Farah conducted a review of the study for the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.

So what does higher brain functioning mean practically? Researchers will have to continue to monitor the development of the children to know for sure, but typically such brain patterns can be associated with higher cognitive skills later in life. “It’s potentially a groundbreaking study,” said Charles A. Nelson III of Harvard, who served as a consultant to the study. “If I was a policymaker, I’d pay attention to this, but it would be premature of me to pass a bill that gives every family $300 a month.”

There’s no immediate concerns there, since President Joe Biden failed to rally enough Democrats to his social policy bill — a bill that included an expanded child tax credit proposal. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia joined Republicans and effectively blocked the bill, citing the cost of such child tax credits and a belief that financial aid with no strings attached discourages parents from seeking jobs.

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Researchers have long known of a correlation between poverty and poorer cognitive skills in children, but what they didn’t know is whether the poverty itself was to blame or if there were associated factors involved. But this new study strongly suggests that money in and of itself plays a role in an infant’s development from their earliest months.

The children’s development will continue to be studied for the next four years, with additional studies after that.

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