This story is part of (DIS)Invested — a long-term Reader investigation into Omaha’s inequities.
When Tiffany Back’s oldest daughter, Catina, was in kindergarten, the single mom only saw her when she sent her to school in the morning — the rest of the time, Back said, she was working two jobs, desperate to make ends meet for Catina and her then 1-year-old sister, Miracle.
Around that time, Back said, Catina’s behavior became “a disaster.”
“I would get calls at work, [the babysitter telling me], ‘She ran outside and is refusing to come back in,’” said Back, who recalls her daughter yelling, “I want [mom]!” over the phone. Back said she wondered, “Is she going to run into the traffic if she runs outside? Is she gonna get picked up by somebody?’”
Back — who said she was a rebellious child growing up in a single-parent household where her mom worked three jobs and was on government assistance — said Catina’s behavior has improved since she was diagnosed with and treated for ADHD and anxiety. And even though Back is now working three jobs, her schedule allows her to spend more time with Catina, who today is in fourth grade.
But emerging studies suggest kids like Catina who grow up in poverty are more likely to experience delays in brain growth and development that hamper academic achievement and executive functioning, such as focusing on tasks and controlling impulses. And according to a 2016 Duke University article, the brains of kids growing up in poverty are similar to those of kids who have been physically abused.
Preschool-age U.S. children living in poverty are likely to have cognitive scores on average 60% lower than kids in the highest socioeconomic group, even though at birth their brains work similarly. These differences translate into material life outcomes. People who grow up in poverty in the U.S. are five times more likely to drop out of high school; they are less likely to earn college degrees and more likely to be poor when they grow up. (These stats are reported by the National Center for Children in Poverty, U.S. Department of Education and Illinois State University; click the linked text above for more information.)
But even though researchers continue to cite them as relevant, these statistics are dated as far back as 2002. And as any statistician will note, correlation does not imply causation — the relationship between income and outcomes for kids doesn’t necessarily mean poverty causes kids’ brains to develop in a certain way. That lack of causal evidence leaves room for people to point at the family structure or culture of families experiencing poverty — not necessarily family income — as reasons kids’ brains develop differently, according to University of California, Irvine, education professor Greg Duncan.
“The question of whether income was the active ingredient behind this link between poverty and worse child outcomes [is] a very contentious point in the policy debate,” Duncan said. “[This has gone on for decades because] unless you have a random assignment experiment … where you isolated the effect of income, you really [can’t] be
This uncertainty led Duncan, alongside six professors from universities across the U.S., to conduct Baby’s First Years, which describes itself as the first causal study to explore connections between poverty reduction and the cognitive, emotional and brain development of infants and toddlers. The study also looks at how mothers respond to unconditional cash gifts.
Preliminary results of Baby’s First Years suggest that when low-income moms receive unconditional cash benefits on a predictable, monthly basis, their babies’ brain activity may be positively impacted. They also reveal that, even though mothers can spend the money on anything, they mentally designate it for their child. If the findings continue to bear out, there’s a chance they could affect public policy, including expanding cash assistance programs, down the road.
“Debates over whether [to implement policies] giving money to low-income families [focus not on whether] it’s good for the kids, but whether the mom’s going to work less [or] spend the money on drugs. It’s all this stereotypical stuff about the mom,” Duncan said. “If you’ve got a squeaky clean random-assignment experiment that shows impacts on kids, is that going to have any bearing on the debates?”
Here’s how Baby’s First Years works: Between May 2018 and June 2019, 1,000 low-income moms were recruited from four U.S. cities — New York City, greater New Orleans, the Twin Cities and the Omaha metro area — when they gave birth. They receive a monthly, unconditional cash gift of either $333/ month ($3,996/year) or $20/month ($240 each year) to spend on anything, and their child’s development is tracked for the first four years of their life.
The study, which researchers started discussing in 2011, according to Duncan, won’t wrap up until August 2023, said Kimberly Noble, a Teachers College, Columbia University professor of neuroscience and education, and one of the study’s primary researchers. (They’re currently collecting fourth-year data and, Noble said, trying to extend the research beyond age 4. And Duncan said the monthly gifts continue until four months after their kids’ sixth birthdays.)
But, according to preliminary results, babies in the $333/month group showed more high-frequency brain activity than their $20/month-group counterparts, especially in the frontal and central parts of the brain. In layman’s terms, that means improved language development, intellect and social-emotional skills, such as managing emotions and building relationships. And early results from the qualitative part of the study suggest mothers feel confident in their ability to put the money to good use — usually by spending it on their kids.
Katie Weitz, executive director of the philanthropic Weitz Family Foundation, helped bring Baby’s First Years to Omaha. She recalls visiting the state Capitol to speak with state senators who weren’t sure about supporting Baby’s First Years — they had to pass legislation so moms in the study wouldn’t get kicked off public benefits, such as Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), which gives cash assistance to low-income families with kids, if the money they got from Baby’s First Years made their income exceed the cut-off.
The vote passed almost unanimously — uncharacteristic of a Legislature that, according to state Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, doesn’t have the votes to increase the income eligibility requirements for ADC.
“I think [politicians are] used to advocates who know what the answer is … but we had a question we genuinely didn’t know the answer to,” said Duncan, who noted Omaha ticked all the boxes of an ideal study site, including a cost of living that differed from other sites and contributed to the diversity of the study, plus a willing philanthropic community.
Weitz hopes to connect study participants’ kids with a statewide system (called NSWERS) that analyzes data to inform policy decisions in Nebraska education, and determine whether, decades from now, there are differences in high-school graduation rates, college persistence and workforce choices between kids from families who received more versus less cash assistance. But regardless of how the results bear out, she said, she believes the project serves families.
“Money … is going directly into the pockets of the low-income moms,” Weitz said. “Even if we learn nothing new [the money] is helping … vulnerable families today.”
So how are mothers in the study spending their $333 or $20/month? For one thing, they’re mentally earmarking the cash as being for their kids, according to Sarah Halpern-Meekin, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who’s in charge of the study’s qualitative component.
A sociologist, Halpern-Meekin said interviews with moms in the study reveal they generally spend the money on kids’ toys and books, as well as household items, such as cleaning supplies, which are part and parcel of raising children in a safe environment. That flies in the face of stereotypes about people in poverty buying substances, such as cigarettes and alcohol, when they get cash benefits. Preliminary results show that when mothers do spend money on and/or use “vice” products, it’s consistent among the $333/month and $20/month groups, suggesting more income doesn’t necessarily mean more “vice” spending or substance use. Under 0.3% of transactions made by the moms with Baby’s First Years money happened in liquor stores, as of January 2020.
“[These stereotypes] ‘other’ families who have limited resources,” Halpern-Meekin said. “There are different amounts of resources people have, but [parents’] love, attention and care exist up and down the income spectrum … [What comes] out so strongly in these interviews is how fiercely moms love their children [and] what joy they get from parenting.”
What mothers say in interviews also pushes back against stereotypes about women’s relationships with money — for example, that they lack confidence in dealing with it and need help managing budgets.
“Moms are not going around trying to get lots of input on how to spend this money every month. They know what their children’s wants and needs are,” said Halpern-Meekin, recalling a mother who felt power to decide how to use the money as opposed to her partner deciding. “[These women] are actively making decisions around money all the time.”
If Back got an extra $333/month, she said she’d purchase bracelet-making kits for Catina, who loves crafts, and put her in gymnastics class. Catina’s been asking, “Can I do gymnastics?” for two years, Back said, but she can’t afford it, nor can she afford dance lessons for Miracle, who, like her mother, has neurofibromatosis, a genetic condition that makes tumors form on nerve tissue and can cause learning impairment, hearing and vision loss, cardiovascular problems and severe pain.
“Any money I get [is] always for the kids … My brain functions that way. I don’t buy stuff for myself,” Back said. “My kids … need clothes, backpacks, school supplies … [And I’d] feel more accomplished [if I could get them into extracurriculars].”
Besides tax refunds, including the child tax credit, Halpern-Meekin said, ADC is the closest equivalent to the no-strings-attached cash gifts mothers get in Baby’s First Years, since recipients can spend ADC income on rent, utilities, food, clothing and more — they aren’t confined to spending the money on just one thing as with, for example, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), which can only be spent on food.
But as The Reader reported in its July 2022 deep dive into Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, the federal grant that funds ADC), Nebraska has the fourth-highest denial rate for direct cash assistance in the country, with 90% of ADC applicants turned away — even though the state has stockpiled more than $108 million in TANF (nationwide, states were sitting on a whopping $5.2 billion of TANF as of December 2021).
And, as The Reader reported, ADC, unlike Baby’s First Years money, is not unconditional. As of July 2021, a single parent must meet 30-hours-per-week work requirements to earn just $408 per month for a two-person family, which translates to about $3.13 an hour — well below Nebraska’s $9 per hour minimum wage.
“It was a job itself, but you [weren’t] getting much money for it,” recalled Back, who’s been on ADC in the past. “So it was pointless.”
Should the results continue to bear out that more money leads to improved brain development, researchers say they can’t predict whether that will impact policy.
“Child brain development is one thing we could value and pursue in policy but our study [cannot] say, ‘It is the thing you should value,’” Halpern-Meekin said. “That’s for policymakers to decide, whether children’s brain development is an area in which they want to invest.”
Weitz said she’d like to keep state senators and the governor apprised of the ongoing Baby’s First Years work, in the hopes they’ll understand the importance of public benefit programs, should there be conclusive evidence at the study’s end. At the time of this writing, state Sen. Cavanaugh said she’s searching for ways to use TANF money as productively as possible, given inflation. At a national level, Halpern-Meekin pointed to Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, a network of mayors pushing for a federal guaranteed income, which, she said, is leading small-scale cash-transfer experiments in cities across the U.S.
Mothers in the study, Halpern-Meekin said, aren’t scrutinizing their kids’ brain development. Instead, moms like Back are delighted to watch their kids change and gain new skills, as children do, regardless of where they are developmentally. And they’d like their kids’ futures to be unencumbered by poverty.
“I want [my daughters] to … do whatever [their] hearts desire and makes [them] happy,” Back said, “[and] follow whatever dream they want.”
From Nov. 2020 – Aug. 2022, Leah reported on social justice, including employment equity, economic justice, educational inequality, and the experiences and history of Nebraska’s LGBTQ+ community. Although she’s now pursuing a PhD in Communication, Information and Media at Rutgers University, Leah remains a diehard Reader fan and wholeheartedly supports all things Reader. You can connect with her via Twitter (@cates_leah).