Providing Cash to Low‑Income Mothers May Improve Children’s Brain Development: Study
A randomized trial in the United States became the first to find a cause-effect relationship between poverty and brain development. It turns out that regular and unconditional cash transfers to low-income families can lead to higher-frequency brain activity in infants. Policy measures around poverty and children’s health are thus intimately related — with the findings confirming the benefits of poverty reduction interventions on children’s early brain activity.
Previously, it was unclear whether poverty itself was responsible for these neurodevelopment differences between children from different income groups, or other factors associated with poverty. But all in all, the consensus was clear from the get-go: “Early childhood poverty is a risk factor for lower school achievement, reduced earnings, and poorer health, and has been associated with differences in brain structure and function,” the paper, published in PNAS, notes.
Direct cash transfers are a way to test the hypothesis that poverty reduction itself can improve neurodevelopment in children. The study analyzed data involving mother-infant dyads from the “Baby’s First Years” study, which attempts to assess the relationship between poverty reduction and children’s development. Randomly chosen mothers received large cash gifts — $333 per month; and others received nominal cash gifts — $20 per month. Participants were told that they could use the money however they liked, with no conditions or restrictions.
Researchers found that after a year of these cash transfers, babies in the large cash-gift group showed greater brain activity than the other in the first year of their lives. “[W]e provide evidence that giving monthly unconditional cash transfers to mothers experiencing poverty in the first year of their children’s lives may change infant brain activity,” the paper concludes.
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The brain activity in question is measured using electroencephalography (EEG), which demonstrates development patterns. Past research has shown that higher frequency brain activity is associated with higher language, socio-emotional, and cognitive scores whereas lower frequency brain activity can be associated with development, behavioural or learning challenges.
The present study shows how family income begins to have effects on brain activity very fast — in the first year of an infant’s life itself. This is because of neuroplasticity, or the tendency of the brain to adapt to different circumstances. It means that even if everyone is born with the same potential, their environments shape how they manifest. “Children’s brain development reflects an adaptation to their lived experiences,” the study notes.
“All healthy brains are shaped by their environments and experiences, 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 Kimberly Noble, Professor of Neuroscience and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University and lead neuroscientist on the Baby’s First Years project.
In India, most maternal cash transfer programs are conditional. Still, research found that the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana (PMMVY) scheme for pregnant and lactating mothers showed benefits to children’s health. However, this scheme cut down on the benefits previously made available for new mothers: the scheme is conditional, requires biometric registration, Aadhaar, and is only applicable for the first child. Economist Jean Dreze noted the pitfalls of conditional cash transfers as such in The Economist:
“For good measure, in an extraordinary gesture of stinginess, PMMVY also reduces the benefits – illegally again – from Rs 6,000 to Rs 5,000 per child. Further, the Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY), under which pregnant women currently receive cash incentives for institutional deliveries, is due to be phased out.”
The current research validates the benefits of unconditional cash transfer programs, in a country where conditional programs are a bottleneck preventing access for many women. Although the study was conducted in the US, the causal relationship now confirms the validity of such programs anywhere in the world.