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By Ariel Gilreath

The research is clear: Childrens’ developing brains are altered by the corrosive effects of poverty. 

But a new study published last month in Nature Communications suggests these effects can be mitigated when families have more resources. In states with more generous safety-net programs, children from low-income families have brains that are closer in size to their wealthier peers

Using existing data from the national Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development study, researchers at Harvard University and Washington University in St. Louis compared more than 10,000 children, ages 9-11, who lived across 17 states. The data showed that children from families with lower income levels were more likely to have a smaller hippocampus — the section of the brain responsible for learning and memory — and were also more likely to have mental health challenges.  

In states where the cost of living is higher, the disparity in brain size was even greater, the study found. But in high cost of living states with more generous welfare policies, the brain volume disparity between poor and affluent children was reduced by 34 percent, the study found. Rates of mental health challenges among children from low-income families also dropped. 

“When youth lived in states that were more expensive to live in, their hippocampal volume was even smaller if they were growing up in poverty, but that effect was counteracted if those states also had a stronger safety net. And then we also saw really similar patterns for depression, anxiety or internalizing problems,” said David Weissman, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s Stress and Development Lab and co-author of the study. 

The safety net policies the study focused on were the Earned Income Tax Credit program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and whether the states had expanded access to Medicaid. While most states have expanded Medicaid eligibility to include 138 percent of the federal poverty rate, 10 states restrict eligibility to certain groups and to those with incomes at or below the federal poverty level

“We consider the results of this, in combination with other results that have emerged recently in similar studies, to be pretty solid evidence that policy decisions on things like Medicaid expansion and the generosity of cash assistance for families in poverty matter for brain development and mental health for children from those families in a measurable and significant way,” Weissman said. 

This research comes in the wake of a groundbreaking study published last year that showed improved cognitive activity in babies whose families received monthly cash support for a year. For that study, researchers from several universities placed 1,000 low-income mothers from across the country into two groups: One group received $333 monthly payments and the other received $20 each month. In both groups, the money came with no strings attached. After a year, Babies whose mothers received the $333 payments showed more high-frequency brain activity. 

“We’ve got mounting evidence suggesting that children from disadvantaged backgrounds often have differences in a variety of developmental and health outcomes, but here we’re showing that if we change family income, it can lead to changes in those outcomes,” said Kimberly Noble, an author of the study and a professor of neuroscience with Teachers College, Columbia University. (Disclosure: The Hechinger Report is an independent unit of Teachers College.) 

Noble said $333 was chosen for the study because it is similar in size to the amount low-income families might receive in financial assistance from federal programs, and previous research has linked families that received an additional $4,000 per year to higher educational attainment. 

“We really haven’t had strong evidence on what the benefits [of safety net programs] are, in the way that we’ve had all sorts of studies on what the costs are. So, you can really think of our study as the strongest study that will provide evidence on the child benefits,” said Greg Duncan, an economist at University of California, Irvine and a co-author on the study. 

Researchers will continue to study the impact of the $333 payments on the children, who are turning 4 years old this year. But the early results are promising, Noble said. 

“By giving unconditional financial support, we’re seeing that moms are spending the money on their children,” Noble said. “Even after just the first year, we’re already seeing impacts on children’s development. So, it suggests that we can trust families to use social supports in ways that are in their children’s best interests.” 

Both studies are relevant right now as Congress debates adding work requirements to several assistance programs, Weissman said. 

“We do think that policymakers should take this into consideration as they weigh decisions like the ones they’re weighing right now, which involve cutting access to TANF benefits by imposing work requirements, or things like renewing the extended Child Tax credit, which cut child poverty in half but was allowed to expire in 2021,” Weissman said. 

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More on how cash aid impacts young children

This story from Jackie Mader published last year shows how a guaranteed income program in Texas provided stability for families with young kids.

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Research Quick Take

The use of math games in Head Start classrooms as well as math activities for children to do at home with their families had a significantly impact on children’s math scores at the end of the school year, according to a study published in the Early Childhood Research Quarterly from researchers at the Education Development Center.

More Early Childhood news

Could access to child care be the key to helping parents clear arrest warrants?” The 19th News 

More than 10,000 preschool kids missed required education services this year” Gothamist 

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