Family income has previously been linked to child development in observational studies, but for the first time, researchers have discovered direct experimental evidence of how poverty drives such changes.
According to a rigorous randomized study conducted in the U.S., putting money in the hands of mothers can help mold the brains of their offspring.
"We have known for many years that growing up in poverty puts children at risk for lower school achievement, reduced earnings, and poorer health," neuroscientist Kimberly Noble from Columbia University explained.
"However, until now, we haven't been able to say whether poverty itself causes differences in child development, or whether growing up in poverty is simply associated with other factors that cause those differences."
The findings come from an ongoing study known as Baby's First Year, which is attempting to assess how poverty reduction can impact the cognitive and emotional growth of very young children.
The findings come from the ongoing Baby's First Years study, which is attempting to determine how poverty reduction affects the cognitive and emotional development of very young children.
A thousand low-income mothers in the United States were recruited for the study shortly after the birth of their children.
These parents, who were from New York City, New Orleans, Omaha, or Minneapolis/St. Paul were then randomly assigned either $333 in unconditional cash payments per month or $20 in unconditional cash payments per month for the first four years of their baby's life - no strings attached.
Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, only 435 families were able to accommodate in-person tests to measure the electrical activity of their babies' brains.
Despite the small sample size, the findings demonstrate that providing financial assistance to low-income moms can have a direct impact on infant brain activity in the first year of life.
Infants whose moms received larger financial payments, for example, showed higher frequency brain activity than those whose mothers received smaller payouts.
More research is needed to establish if these changes in brain activity are permanent or if they lead to greater cognitive development, but there's reason to believe they do.
High-frequency brain activity is more common in babies born into higher-income families, according to small studies. Higher verbal, cognitive, and social-emotional scores are also linked to this type of engagement, however, these links aren't always consistent.
Whatever the cause or reasons, money appears to have a significant impact on a child's neurodevelopment.
The authors hope that their findings will one day inspire better poverty-fighting programs. The Baby's First Year study, in particular, emphasizes the necessity of putting children at the center of these interventions.
The study was published in the PNAS.