A growing body of small-scale studies documents that the cognitive and brain development of low-income children differs from that of children in higher-income families. Higher family income is associated with better performance on assessments of children’s language, memory, executive function, and socioemotional functioning, with corresponding associations found in the neural structure and function of brain regions that support these skills.
At the same time, a large body of social science research has found disparities by income in measures of children’s achievement, school performance, and learning-related behaviors, such as attention and self-regulation.
Developmental scientists agree that poverty is especially likely to shape children’s early development because of the high plasticity and rapid growth of the brain during the first three years of life. To test these findings, a rigorous study is needed to examine how providing income support to families may affect infants’ and toddlers’ brain function and development.
Baby’s First Years is the first causal study to test the connections between poverty reduction and brain development among very young children.
One thousand low-income mothers and their newborns were recruited in several ethnically and geographically diverse communities.
Mothers receive either (1) $333 each month ($4,000 each year), or (2) $20 each month ($240 each year), for the first 40 months of the children’s lives with the first payments occurring shortly after the baby’s birth.
To understand how poverty reduction affects children’s development and family life, quantitative data will be collected on or around the children’s first, second, and third birthdays. Each wave of data collection will capture:
Aspects of family life hypothesized to be affected by poverty, including parent stress, family expenditures, family routines, parents’ time use and parenting practices, and child care arrangements.
Children’s development, as well as their physical health, stress, and behavior.
In addition, qualitative semi-structured interviews will be conducted with 80 randomly selected mothers in two of the four study sites. There will be four rounds of interviews. Three interviews will be done in the child’s first 30 months of life, and a fourth will be done after 40 months (when the payments are scheduled to have ended).
The study is designed to produce strong and clear evidence about the magnitude and pathways of causal connections between family income and early childhood development. Beyond its core contributions to science, the study will provide important evidence about the likely effects of tax and income-enhancement policies for young children, such as the Child and Earned Income Tax Credits, and related social policies designed to enhance family economic stability and well-being.