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A mother puts a mask on her child

A mother puts a mask on her baby on June 16, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

As CTC Ends, Study Says Monthly Payments Boost Baby Brain Activity

"We have more than enough evidence: Giving parents assistance on a monthly basis is good policy," said one advocacy group.

Julia Conley

Advocates for children and families said Tuesday that there is "more than enough evidence" in favor of cash benefits for families and called on Congress to extend the recently-expired Child Tax Credit after a new study showed boosted brain activity in babies whose parents received monthly payments.

Scientists at Columbia University, Harvard University, and five other universities on Monday published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences (PNAS).

The team looked at 435 of 1,000 infants whose mothers participated in the the Baby’s First Years study, an anti-poverty research effort that looked at how monthly cash injections for the first 52 months of a child's life would impact brain development.

"Policy impacts biology. It's past time we made the Child Tax Credit increases permanent."

The researchers gave half of the parents—whose average yearly income was $20,000—$20 per month while the other half got $333 per month, increasing their income by about 20%.

At one year of age, the children of all the parents were evaluated using electroencephalograms (EEG). The children in the high-benefit group were shown to have more of the fast-paced brain activity that's been linked to cognitive development, the study showed.

"We have known for many years that growing up in poverty puts children at risk for lower school achievement, reduced earnings, and poorer health," said Dr. Kimberly Noble, a neuroscientist at Columbia and lead author of the study. "However, until now, we haven't been able to say whether poverty itself causes differences in child development, or whether growing up in poverty is simply associated with other factors that cause those differences."

Further research will examine exactly how the parents used the money, which they were permitted to spend however they chose and which the families will continue to receive until their children are four years old.

As the Times reported Monday, "it could have purchased better food or healthcare; reduced damaging levels of parental stress; or allowed mothers to work less and spend more time with their infants."

Childrens' advocates said the research made clear that right-wing claims that poor parents will waste cash benefits if the government provides them are false.

The study showed "giving parents assistance on a monthly basis is good policy," tweeted the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), calling on the White House and Congress to prioritize restarting the Child Tax Credit (CTC), which ended for millions of families this past month.

The CTC was sent on a monthly basis to 35 million families during the second half of 2021, and President Joe Biden was joined by the majority of Democrats in Congress in pushing for the payments to be extended as part of the Build Back Better Act—a provision which would have slashed childhood poverty by 40% this year.

But negotiations over Build Back Better stalled this month as right-wing Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) joined the Republican Party in objecting to the CTC extension, which sent up to $300 per child to families.

As Common Dreams reported last month, Manchin apparently told colleagues that he could not support the $1.75 trillion investment in social spending because he believed poor families would use the CTC to buy drugs—a claim researchers said was debunked by the project, as well as by earlier studies showing families used the CTC largely to buy food, pay rent and mortgage payments, and pay for other essentials.

Duke University economist Lisa A. Gennetian, who co-authored the study, told the Times the research "indicated that parents could be trusted to make good decisions."

"For one family, that might be food; for another, it might be housing," Gennetian said.

"This study's findings on infant brain activity are unprecedented," Gennetian added in a statement, "and really speak to how anti-poverty policies—including the types of expanded child tax credits being debated in the U.S.—can and should be viewed as investments in children."

One of the researchers, Charles A. Nelson III of Harvard, tempered his analysis of the findings, saying they were "potentially groundbreaking" but that "it would be premature... to pass a bill that gives every family $300 a month."

Brian P. Mangan, an attorney and 2020 delegate candidate for Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) presidential campaign, denounced the suggestion that the research needs "further review" to bolster the case for cash aid to families.

Chabeli Carrazana, an economy reporter for The 19th, noted that "cash stipends, guaranteed income—policies that have been considered too 'radical'—are the same thing as a child tax credit," adding that the study shows the "potential impact" of the CTC.

"Policy impacts biology," tweeted Dr. Scott Hadland, chief of adolescent medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. "It's past time we made the Child Tax Credit increases permanent."

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