Guaranteed Income Doesn’t Just Help Low-Income Parents—It Also Improves Their Children’s Brain Development

Early financial interventions in infants’ lives can have a measurable impact on their health and help set them up for future success.

guaranteed-income-child-tax-credit-poverty-mental-health-children-brain-development-memory
A rally with parents, caregivers and children in front of the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 13, 2021, urged passage of the Build Back Better legislation to extend the expanded child tax credit that expired on Jan. 15, 2022. New research suggests receiving monthly payments—like guaranteed income and the child tax credit—contributes to greater development of cognitive processing skills and increased memory in kids. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

It’s no secret that extra cash can reduce stress and allow people to do things they’ve been putting off—like buying a few treats, going to the doctor or paying off debts. But new evidence suggests that receiving monthly payments doesn’t just impact the mental health of parents, but also the brains and futures of their children.

A recent study compared two sets of low-income families, one group who received $20/month and another who received $333/month starting at their baby’s birth. After a year, researchers found that the infants whose families received $333/month had more high-frequency brain activity—which is associated with the development of cognitive processing skills and increased memory.

This experiment concludes what low-income people have always known—that poverty and the stress associated with it has a negative impact on children’s health. However, it also reveals the effects of childhood poverty linger throughout someone’s life, affecting their cognitive development and impacting their future education or career. While this result will need to be confirmed with further research, the study helps demonstrate that early financial interventions in infants’ lives can have a measurable impact on their health and help set them up for future success.

Throughout 2021, many low-income children were receiving these cognitive and developmental benefits, thanks to the expanded child tax credit (CTC). As part of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, parents received $3,000 to $3,600 per child for 2021, split up into six monthly payments and a larger lump sum during tax season in 2022. During the six months the program was active, child poverty was reduced by 30 percent. The payments reached more than 36 million households, keeping 3.7 million children out of poverty in December. Now, the CTC has expired, putting millions of low-income families in precarious financial positions once again.

For Sequaya, a low-income Black mom who lost her job during the pandemic, the CTC helped keep her family afloat:

“The new child tax credit payments have helped me a lot, especially since I’ve just gone from getting paid every week to having zero income. It’s helped to put shoes on my daughter’s feet and food in the fridge until my SNAP benefits come through. It’s a big relief to wake up and just know, ‘Okay, I’m not going to have to borrow money today because I have that extra help coming in.’ It’s very helpful.”

Now that the monthly CTC payments have ended, moms like Sequaya are losing the financial stability they relied on. But a similar policy, guaranteed income, is another option to ensure that low-income infants can achieve the same level of cognitive development as more privileged children. Just like the CTC, guaranteed income provides low-income families with unrestricted cash payments, giving them the flexibility to keep up with monthly costs and invest in their children’s futures. To guaranteed income proponents, this new research proves that providing unrestricted monthly payments—instead of complex welfare systems that require parents to jump through confusing hoops—will benefit low-income families across the U.S.

guaranteed-income-child-tax-credit-poverty-mental-health-children-brain-development-memory
(Photo courtesy of Springboard to Opportunities / Art by Brandi Phipps)

The Magnolia Mother’s Trust (MMT) is one example of how guaranteed income can have a huge impact on marginalized families. By providing Black mothers living in extreme poverty with $1,000 per month for a year, MMT has demonstrated that unrestricted financial benefits can have extremely powerful effects on children—and they plan to use the evidence from their pilot program to advocate for a federal guaranteed income policy for all low-income families.

After a year of receiving guaranteed income, the percentage of MMT participants able to pay all their bills without additional support jumped from 37 percent to 80 percent. MMT mothers were 20 percent more likely to have children performing at or above grade level, and were 27 percent more likely to seek needed medical care than other moms not receiving guaranteed income. Many of the moms found that guaranteed income allowed them to focus on their children’s education and health in ways that were previously out of reach.

One MMT recipient Sabrina (last name withheld), a mother of three who was laid off from her retail job at the beginning of the pandemic, was able to enroll her son in a school designed to help him with his dyslexia. Another, Elsie, who works with the disabled, could afford to pay for the uniforms and fees necessary for her children to participate in the choir and marching band at school. And single mom Chephirah shared:

“[MMT] has really helped me in preparing for [my daughter’s] school. The money has also helped me cover my monthly bills, and get caught up on some old debts. It also helps to pay for things like my daughter’s school books. And it’s helped me in preparing for college. My hope for her right now is to be the first one in our family to graduate from high school—my brothers and I all left school early. I want her to have a real high school diploma, not a GED. I want her to go to college, and to just know that whatever she wants to strive for, I’m gonna be right there behind her to support her 100 percent.”

guaranteed-income-child-tax-credit-poverty-mental-health-children-brain-development-memory
(Photo courtesy of Springboard to Opportunities / Art by Brandi Phipps)

For many of the moms, having more consistent access to money meant they could finally stop living paycheck-to-paycheck and focus on not just physical health, but the mental health of themselves and their kids as well. 

Amber, a mother of two who works as a call center operator, reflected:

“My goal with my kids is to be an all-around support system for them in all aspects of their life, especially for their mental health because I think that’s a really important issue in the Black community. I want to make sure they are given the proper tools to protect their mental and physical health in order to progress in life. I’m thinking about counseling for my kids—they haven’t shown any signs of the pandemic wearing on them, but it’s something I worry about.”

Erica works at an elementary school and dreams of opening a counseling center for kids. “Getting to be part of the Mother’s Trust this year did a lot for me and my family,” she wrote. “There’s the financial part that’s so important, but it also helped me show up better for my kids. I don’t think I ever let them down before, but I used to have to work four or five jobs to make ends meet. Having the income coming in on top of my wages from work gave me more time to spend with them since I didn’t have to work extra hours to make sure they had what they needed. It just helped me build myself up—financially, mentally, emotionally—everything you need to really build yourself up.”

A common story among the MMT moms is how guaranteed income gives them a financial buffer, allowing them to relax and spend more time focused on their families and themselves instead of worrying about monthly bills. For their children, it lets them avoid the perpetual stress that comes with poverty, freeing up mental space to focus on school. In the long-term, that financial stability will likely enable more low-income children to go to college and achieve higher-paying careers. 

Clearly, MMT—and other guaranteed income programs across the country—reveal the huge impact that consistent financial assistance has for low-income children, providing their parents with the resources they need to prioritize their long-term needs and set their children up for future success and happiness. A federal guaranteed income policy would enable marginalized parents to support their children’s education, invest in their family’s future and live their lives without the constant mental burdens of debt and living paycheck-to-paycheck. Providing unrestricted cash to those who need it most would be a transformational policy for struggling Americans, and would help low-income children escape from crushing cycles of debt and poverty. 

Mother of two and guaranteed income recipient Annette agrees: “Thanks to the new child tax credit expansion coming monthly and the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, I’ve been able to do more for my kids and not have to worry if I can afford a school uniform or school supplies,” she wrote. “If I were able to sit down with our country’s leaders, I would tell them how important a program like the Trust is. The money has helped me in pursuing a better future for me and my kids, and it helps low-income women like myself better ourselves.”

If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.

Up next:

About

Katie Fleischer is a recent graduate of Smith College and a Ms. editorial assistant working on the Front and Center series.