Study suggests link between welfare payments and enhanced brain activity in babies

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Simon Torkington, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • A study of 1,000 babies looks at the impact of child poverty.
  • New mothers were given a monthly payment of $333 or just $20. Scans showed babies from the higher-paid group had increased brain activity.
  • Low educational attainment in early years is carried into later life, with children from poorer backgrounds emerging from school with weaker exam results.

Researchers in the United States have published a study that suggests providing financial support to the mothers of newborn babies increases brain activity in their infants.

Baby’s First Years was designed “to assess the impact of poverty reduction on family life and infant and toddlers’ cognitive, emotional and brain development”. The study, conducted by a team from six US universities, included 1,000 new mothers from low-income backgrounds.

Based on a random selection process, the mothers were assigned a monthly payment of either $333 a month, or $20 a month. The payments were made by charities and will continue until the children are four years and four months old, respectively.

Baby brain power

A year after the babies were born, the research team used electronic scans to monitor the infants’ brain activity. As the chart below illustrates, they found higher brainwave activity in the group whose mothers were receiving the higher payments.

The higher levels of activity were present across the alpha, beta and gamma ranges of high-frequency brain activity.

Researchers studied the link between poverty and brain activity in babies.
Researchers studied the link between poverty and brain activity in babies. Image: PNAS

Based on the test results, the researchers concluded their study provides 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. Such changes reflect neuroplasticity and environmental adaptation and display a pattern that has been associated with the development of subsequent cognitive skills.”

The gift that keeps on giving?

Although the infants tested were only one year of age, the researchers believe early intervention to alleviate poverty could lead to stronger learning skills later in life.

The report states: “The patterns of neural activity we observe in the high-cash gift group have been correlated with higher language, cognitive and social-emotional scores later in childhood and adolescence.”

The authors also note the limitations of drawing conclusions from a study of one-year-old children. Future waves of the study will further test the theory that cash donations could have a lasting effect on a child’s development.

Childhood poverty: a lifelong burden

The Baby’s First Years study builds upon a body of work that demonstrates the impact of poverty on children and their development.

A long-term study by the UK’s Joseph Rowntree Foundation finds that “children growing up in poorer families emerge from school with substantially lower levels of educational attainment.” The research shows that the home environment in the early years of a child’s life is an important factor in eventual educational achievement.

The chart below shows the relative educational outcomes of children from the poorest and richest backgrounds in the UK as they progress through their school careers.

A ranking of educational achievement by children from rich and poor backgrounds in the UK.
A ranking of educational achievement by children from rich and poor backgrounds in the UK. Image: Joseph Rowntree Foundation

A global view of child poverty

Another study, Oxford University’s Young Lives research programme, is tracking the development of 12,000 children in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Viet Nam over a period of 15 years.

The authors of Young Lives have found that the first 1,000 days of a child’s life are vital, with a malnourished infant more likely to have weaker cognitive abilities by the age of five. In addition, a child who arrives at school already disadvantaged is likely to fall behind as they grow up, researchers say.

Another finding from Young Lives shows that childhood poverty is multidimensional in both its causes and consequences, affecting every aspect of a child’s life and limiting their potential. Poorer homes are more likely to experience adverse events than richer ones, but are less likely to have the capacity to withstand them without a negative impact on children.

Collectively, these studies illustrate the damage childhood poverty causes to children’s education and their subsequent life chances. The Baby’s First Years study suggests a direct financial intervention from the time of birth could make a significant difference. Policy-makers and parents will, however, need a range of tools to ensure every child is given an equal chance – starting from the day they are born.

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