A new study from researchers at Harvard and Washington University in St. Louis and supported by the National Institutes of Health (NI), suggest that well-funded anti-poverty measures can improve both brain development and mental health in children.
Past research has shown that childhood poverty has a negative long-term impact along various outcome measures, like lower educational attainment, more reliance on public assistance, and more mental and physical health problems. “Increasing evidence demonstrates that family income is associated with structural differences in the developing brain, which may contribute to these disparities in later-life outcomes.”
The study used data from the national multisite Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study of children in the United States and investigated cost of living and the generosity of state anti-poverty programs – including two cash assistance programs (EITC and TANF) and the presence of Medicaid expansion – and their impact on the association between family income and youth brain size. They found that, “The disparities between high- and low-income participants in hippocampal volume and internalizing problems were 34% to 48% smaller, respectively, in states that had a high cost of living but that provided more generous benefits for lower-income families, as compared to high cost of living states with less generous benefits.”
The researchers speculated, based on the results, that the reason that the access or lack of access to these anti-poverty programs have an impact on child brain development may be because, “they amplify or reduce stressors associated with low income. Having greater financial resources may shield families from experiencing some of the chronic stressors associated with low income that can influence hippocampal development.”
This study adds to the growing body of research demonstrating that increasing funding and accessibility of these important anti-poverty measures is good policy and would improve long-term outcomes for children.