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A Novel Effort to See How Poverty Affects Young Brains

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The study aimed to collect brain activity data from children at age 1 and age 3 in home visits, and researchers managed to obtain the first set of data for around two-thirds of the children before the pandemic struck. Because home visits are still untenable, they extended the study to age 4 and will be collecting the second set of brain data next year instead of this year.

The pandemic, as well as the two stimulus payments most Americans received this past year, undoubtedly affected participating families in different ways, as will this year’s stimulus checks and the new monthly payments. But because the study is randomized, the researchers nonetheless expect to be able to assess the impact of the cash gift, Dr. Noble said.

Baby’s First Years is seen as an audacious effort to prove, through a randomized trial, a causal link between poverty reduction and brain development. “It is definitely one of the first, if not the first” study in this developing field to have direct policy implications, said Martha Farah, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Center for Neuroscience and Society who studies poverty and the brain.

Professor Farah concedes, however, that social scientists and policymakers often discount the relevance of brain data. “Are there actionable insights we get by bringing neuroscience to bear, or are people just being snowed by pretty brain images and impressive-sounding words from neuroscience? It’s an important question,” she said.

Skeptics abound. James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago who studies inequality and social mobility, said he didn’t see “even a hint that a policy would come out of it, other than to say, yes, there’s an imprint of a better economic life.”

“And it still remains a question what the actual mechanism is” through which giving parents cash helps children’s brains, he said, adding that targeting such a mechanism directly might be both cheaper and more effective.

Samuel Hammond, director of poverty and welfare policy at the Niskanen Center, who worked on a child allowance proposal by Senator Mitt Romney, agrees that tracking the source of any observed cognitive benefits is tricky. “I have trouble disentangling the interventions that actually help the most,” he said. For example, policy experts debate whether certain child care programs directly benefit a child’s brain or simply free up her caregiver to get a job and increase the family’s income, he said.



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