Editor’s note: This occasional series will explore various aspects of childhood achievement, readiness and markers for success and how they relate to Evanston.

In considering Evanston’s achievement gap, one of the largest in the country, there are many things known: that the gap between racial and ethnic groups occurs between birth and third grade, that academic growth happens at similar rates between grades three and eight regardless of race or income, and that the reasons for the gap are socioeconomically driven. For the poor, opportunity is too expensive, and those disparities have lifelong, adverse effects on their children.

In a recently published scientific study, “The Impact of a Poverty Reduction Intervention on Infant Brain Activity,” Sonya Troller-Renfree and colleagues examined what impact a modest increase in income has on the brain development of children living below the poverty line.

person putting coin in a piggy bank
When it comes to childhood development, research shows a modest increase in family income is linked to improved brain development in children. Credit: Joslyn Pickens/Pexels.com

The team of nine scientists from six universities across the country have released the report on the first quarter of their four-year study of the effects poverty has on early childhood brain development. Sampling the brain activity of 435 infants using a randomized control trial, they were able to track the developmental differences in two sets of children living in poverty.

Researchers recruited 1,000 low-income women from a dozen hospital maternity wards to participate in the nation’s first poverty reduction assessment, Baby’s First Years (BFY). About 90 of the mothers identified as white while the rest were either Black or Latina. According to the report they were selected from “racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds” from the Minneapolis/St. Paul, New Orleans, New York City and Omaha metropolitan areas. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, however, the report only draws from a subsample of the initial recruitment.

After giving birth, the women were split into two groups to determine their monetary assignments. Those in the first group receive a monthly allowance of $333, while those in the second group receive only $20. Each family has been given a debit card to receive their unconditional funds, which they are allowed to spend how they want and are scheduled to continue receiving until the study ends.

Evanston’s Guaranteed Income Program

The City of Evanston has also started its own unconditional cash payment program, called the Guaranteed Income Program, which provides 150 randomly selected applicants with $500 on a prepaid debit card every month for a year.

Eligible participants are adults between 18 and 24, seniors 62 and older, undocumented community members and those with household incomes at or below 250% of the federal poverty line.

The first payments have already been dispersed, and the city has partnered with researchers at Northwestern University to determine the program’s impact on the community, including the achievement of low-income children transitioning from adolescence to young adulthood.

Unrestricted payments encourage autonomy

In the BFY study, the annual difference in the allotment between the two groups amounts to $3,756. Research suggests that increasing familial incomes by $4,000 through a child’s second birthday has noticeable long-term effects on success in adulthood as it relates to earnings, workforce hours and overall health. And while income levels aren’t obstacles upon a baby’s initial arrival, money becomes a factor quickly thereafter.

Where BFY diverges from prior studies is that funds are dispersed in monthly allotments rather than lump-sum payments, similar to the Child Tax Credit. Moreover, unlike programs that issue housing vouchers or food stamps, BFY does not restrict the way its money is spent. It also encourages greater autonomy for low-income families, giving them the power to alleviate stressors by allowing them to invest their funds the way they see fit. While being below the poverty line is a requirement, there are no further employment or supplemental assistance program participation restrictions.

Taking a closer look at the Child Tax Credit, families receive $3,600 for each child under 6, which means families with more than one child will be dispensed a substantially larger payment than issued by BFY. The income threshold for the tax credits is $150,000, while BFY is specifically designed as a poverty-reduction intervention that begins at birth.

Research detects brain differences

The recently published report says that economic hardships have connections to changes in electrical brain activity as measured by electroencephalograms, or EEG tests. These tests detect electrical activity between brain cells, also called brainwaves; are defined by bands that indicate its speed, referred to as frequencies; and were performed in the homes of the participating families on their resting infants.

A frequency relates to the number of times a brainwave repeats itself within one second and is measured in units of Hertz. A single Hertz experiences one cycle per second. Previous research has linked high frequencies, or fast brain speed, to development and cognitive abilities.

The researchers found they were correct in their estimation that children from the $333 group would have faster brain speeds in the high-frequency bands than those in the $20 group. Only one year into a four-year report, what scientists do not yet know is if the results will stick, and, if so, how they will affect intellectual and behavioral milestones. It is also unclear whether the data they were able to collect would look the same if their access to the larger sample weren’t restricted.

“Neuroplasticity, or the concept that children’s brains adapt to their environmental contexts, is one path through which these differences are thought to emerge,” the report suggests as a reason children with adverse childhood experiences may have shifts in their brain development.

There is no way to tell if parents are using the funds for items and experiences that would directly impact their child’s development. Furthermore, vagueness still surrounds whether the brain-speed gaps come wholly as a result of poverty, or if that’s just part of the reason for the mind differences. What the BFY report does provide, however, is clear evidence that closing the poverty gap with unconditional cash payments has direct correlations to faster brain speeds in children.

Alicya Dennison

Alicya Dennison is a feature story writer for the Evanston Roundtable, covering a broad range of topics. She is a native Evanstonian, studied Journalism at DePaul University, and works full-time at an...

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  1. You have to be very knowledgeable in looking at studies. Statistics is an extremely complex study and is very easy to mis interpret. This study is looking at association. It is not a causal study. Association studies look at how two items are associated. People who drink green tea are associated with lower rates of various health issues. Is it the green tea or is it the fact that people who a drink green tea daily tend to be well educated and health conscious? Statistics is a very complicated study which may require a course in college to truly understand what the researchers are saying

  2. The headline is misleading. The study cited has nothing to do with Evanston and doesn’t look at an “achievement gap” (which is normally associated with school performance).

    The authors themselves are cautionary about their findings which look at brain imaging of infants and acknowledge the potential influence of confounding variables.

    An interesting study? Sure. But it has nothing to do with Evanston.