Study: Cash aid could help boost babies’ brain development

Newborn babies in the nursery.
Newborn babies in the nursery of a postpartum recovery center in upstate New York on Feb. 16, 2017.
Seth Wenig | AP 2017

Some Twin Cities mothers are part of a study of the connection between cash aid programs and babies' brain development.

In the randomized study released Monday, two groups of mothers were given cash payments of either $333 or $20 a month.

One year into the study, infants whose families are getting the larger cash amount showed more high-frequency brain activity as measured by electroencephalograms, or EEG tests.

“We know that having more of this high-frequency power has been linked to better learning and thinking later in development,” said Sonya Troller-Renfree, a postdoctoral research fellow at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York who studies child development.

Because the study is randomized, there shouldn’t be differences between the two study groups that are affecting the outcome, Troller-Renfree said. She said researchers will continue to follow the infants into their childhood.

What’s still not known, Troller-Renfree said, is how the additional income is boosting babies’ brains. She said it could help reduce families’ stress, or allow parents to spend more on books, toys or trips to the museum.

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“These are all things we're following up on and we're measuring,” she said.

Data from the study, called Baby’s First Years, could be useful to policymakers considering whether to adopt programs that provide a universal basic income.

Minneapolis is launching a pilot program that will provide some families a guaranteed basic income of $500 a month. St. Paul started a similar program last year for low-income families affected by COVID-19.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.