The Baby’s First Years program is one of many throughout the US currently giving unconditional cash payments to people to see whether they improve individual and family outcomes. In the case of Baby’s First Years, the program narrowly targets low-income mothers. It started giving them $333 per month in 2018 and 2019 shortly after giving birth, continuing through the babies’ fourth year (an approximately 20 percent boost in income).
The program was set up as a
randomized control trial (RCT). Researchers established a “control” group of
low-income mothers who also had new babies but received only a small monthly
amount of $20 rather than the larger payment. (They recruited mothers from four
US cities/areas: New Orleans, Omaha, New York, and the Twin Cities.) This
allows the researchers to compare outcomes across the two groups and attribute whatever
differences emerge to the larger monthly payments.
In recent weeks, the study published some interesting results exploring whether cash payments changed infants’ brain activity in the first year of life. This might seem like an overly scientific question without much practical relevance, but as the researchers explain:
More absolute power in mid-to-high (i.e., alpha, beta, and gamma) frequency bands has been associated with higher language, cognitive, and social-emotional scores, whereas more absolute and/or relative low-frequency (i.e., theta) power has been associated with the development of behavioral, attention, or learning problems.
The researchers hypothesized that
the higher income from the Baby’s First Years payments would lead to higher
brain activity among these infants. And if true, the higher brain function
could translate into better cognitive outcomes later in childhood and
ultimately better outcomes as adults.