Direct Cash Payments to Low-Income Moms Help Babies’ Brain Development

In one of the most difficult countries in the world for working parents, more cash means parent are better able to care for and spend time with their babies.

Direct Cash Payments to Low-Income Moms Help Babies’ Brain Development
Photo:Thanasis Zovoilis (Getty Images)

Last summer, the US began sending checks as part of a monthly child tax credit program that offered up to $300 per child to most households across the country. The payments changed lives amid the pandemic, particularly for single mothers struggling to make ends meet. But the program recently expired after Congress failed to reauthorize the tax credit by Dec. 31 last year.

Now, a new study published Monday should make Congress members who tanked the child tax credit seriously question their decision: According to the findings of an experiment called Baby’s First Years, direct cash payments to low-income families can have significant impact on babies’ brain development. Throughout 2019, using electroencephalography or EEG scans, researchers behind the study collected data on brain wave activity in infants in households receiving cash payments of $20 per month, and infants in households receiving $333 per month. Upon comparing and analyzing the data, they found babies from households receiving $333 payments showed more high-frequency or fast brain activity than babies from households receiving $20.

For those who, like me, didn’t study neuroscience, more high-frequency brain activity in infants and toddlers has been correlated with better language ability, memories, and overall cognitive development as the child grows. The Baby’s First Years study is one of the first to assess how direct cash payments can affect babies, and its results are not only promising but also timely as the US increasingly experiments with direct cash payments, in the form of last year’s stimulus checks and the now-expired child tax credit program, amid the pandemic.

The study didn’t draw conclusions on why babies from households that received monthly $333 payments had more high-frequency brain activity, but one Harvard psychology professor, Katie McLaughlin, ventured a reasonable guess: “My first hunch is that you’re reducing parental stress and giving parents more bandwidth, time, and emotional and cognitive energy to be spending with their kids,” McLaughlin told Vox. Another study of Romanian children from nearly two decades ago backs up McLaughlin’s theory—it found that children raised in high-quality foster care had more high-frequency brain activity than their counterparts raised in government institutions, suggesting more support from caretakers or parental figures can play a pivotal role in babies’ and infants’ cognitive development.

That said, we can’t ignore how the US is one of the only wealthy countries in the world that doesn’t require employers to provide paid time off for new parents. The first months of a newborn’s life comprise a critical period for the child’s development and ability to form relationships and attachments that could affect the rest of their life. A study from last summer found newborn infants whose mothers had three months of paid parental leave experienced more advanced neurological development over those three months, compared with the newborn infants of mothers who had unpaid leave during that same period.

People who have to work multiple jobs or are struggling to make ends meet, and are notably more likely to be people of color, often don’t have the option to focus on caring for their newborn infants during this critical period. They usually lack not just paid family leave but also health insurance and coverage of maternal care. The shameful inaccessibility of child care in the US is its own can of worms. Direct cash payments aren’t a substitute for any of these programs, but it’s clear they certainly help.

It isn’t easy to be the parent of a newborn or young child anywhere in the world, but for all the fearmongering about America’s supposedly declining birth rates, the US is a uniquely terrible place to start a family, especially for poor women of color, and Black and brown women in particular. Those who have children because they were unable to access abortion and were forced to carry unwanted pregnancies are often pushed even deeper into poverty, making parenting all the more difficult.

Despite what the science reveals about just how harmful American policy is for newborns, children, and working families as a whole, proposed policy change is routinely defeated in Congress, primarily by supposedly “pro-life” lawmakers. One Republican Congress member, who is notably alive today because someone once birthed him, literally asked Congress why male taxpayers should have to pay for prenatal and postnatal health care in a 2017 debate about the Affordable Care Act. In Mississippi, the same state whose 15-week abortion ban is at the heart of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health case before the Supreme Court, all recent efforts to expand Medicaid coverage for new parents from 60 days after giving birth to a year have been defeated in the legislature.

Prattling on about the hypocrisy of politicians who campaign on being pro-family values and loving children so much they’ll force us all to birth them is a lot like beating a dead horse at this point—especially considering no amount of child care or social safety net is an adequate substitute for legal abortion rights. But it still seems important to emphasize that paid family leave, child care, and direct cash payments for working families are life-giving, essential programs. No one who opposes them should be allowed to call themselves pro-life without being laughed out of a room.

The Baby’s First Year study is an important reminder that through all the soul-sucking, dehumanizing debates about whether working parents “deserve” direct cash payments, it’s also their children who will benefit or suffer in long-term, life-altering ways, depending on whether we reinstate the child tax credit.

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