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New study including Duke researchers finds that cash support for low-income mothers impacts children’s brain development

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A team of researchers from six universities, including Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, found in a recent study that one year of providing cash support to low-income mothers had a direct impact on children’s brain development associated with thinking and learning. 

The study, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was inspired by the advances in the fields of social science and neuroscience. The team began working together 10 years ago to investigate how improving children’s financial circumstances influences their development. 

Lisa Gennetian, professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy and faculty affiliate in the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy, was a co-author of the study. Gennetian is also the co-principal investigator of Baby’s First Years, the first study in the United States to assess the impact of poverty reduction on child development. 

Gennetian emphasized how the team aimed to answer an important causal question: “Is poverty itself negatively impacting the first few years of children’s development, including their brain development?” 

The team hypothesized that higher income would lead to investments in greater quality housing, childcare and nutrition, as well as a reduction in maternal stress. These investments would improve maternal well-being and lead to positive interactions with children. 

Low-income mothers and their newborns were recruited shortly after childbirth from 12 hospitals in New Orleans, New York City, Omaha, Neb., and Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn. The families were randomly assigned to two groups: a high cash gift group that would receive $333 per month and a low cash gift group that would receive $20 per month. The cash gifts were distributed on debit cards, and mothers were allowed to spend the cash gifts however they wanted. 

Because of the random assignment design, both groups shared similar characteristics prior to receiving the cash gift. “That’s the beauty of this design. Any changes we see over time, we can attribute to the impact of receiving the additional income,” Gennetian said. 

The team used hair samples to measure chronic stress and video-recorded mother-child interactions; they also collected information associated with the mother’s work, quality of relationships with others and emotional and physical health.

In addition to the findings about children’s brain development, the study raised many more important questions about behavior, financial spending and familial relationships. This information has contributed to the papers and analyses the team is currently working on. Several of these papers are currently under review, but they should be coming out starting this year, Gennetian said.

This summer, the team plans to revisit the children, who will be four years old, and begin their capstone data collection of measuring brain functioning, math and reading skills, behavior and health.

“Through these survey reports, we have a lot of information about expenditures, hardships, family structure and work,” Gennetian said.

According to Gennetian, “the real question about impacts on children are yet to come.” 

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