Shocking Study Shows That Giving Poor Parents Money Benefits The Children They Are Raising
This week, a study came out showing that cash payments to poor mothers led to higher brain function in their newborn children after one year. Also this week, the Child Tax Credit, which slashed child poverty by nearly 30 percent, expired. Why? Because Joe Manchin. As always.
The study, while not complete, gave some families with an average income of $20,000 an extra $333 a month and other families in that bracket an extra $20 a month. The babies in families who got the higher amount were shown to have higher cognitive function after just one year of the payments than the babies whose families got the lower payments.
The differences were modest — researchers likened them in statistical magnitude to moving to the 75th position in a line of 100 from the 81st — and it remains to be seen if changes in brain patterns will translate to higher skills, as other research offers reason to expect.
Still, evidence that a single year of subsidies could alter something as profound as brain functioning highlights the role that money may play in child development and comes as President Biden is pushing for a much larger program of subsidies for families with children.
“This is a big scientific finding,” said Martha J. Farah, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, who conducted a review of the study for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, where it was published on Monday. “It’s proof that just giving the families more money, even a modest amount of more money, leads to better brain development.”
This is not surprising in the least. We know that childhood poverty, even for a short time, can have a lifelong impact on people. We know that charities have long found that the most effective means of helping people are straight cash transfers. The fact is, people understand their own families and what their families need, and when you give them cash that can be used on anything, they spend it in ways that most help their families.
While the size of the recorded differences are modest (about a fifth of a standard deviation), the researchers said they were comparable to those produced by the average school experiment, like giving children tutors. While those services are often hard to administer, they added, cash can be distributed on a mass scale.
Katherine Magnuson, a co-author of the study who directs the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, said she was surprised that only a year’s worth of aid made a difference. “It shows how sensitive the brain is to environments,” she said.
Critics of unrestricted cash aid often warn that families will waste or abuse it. But Lisa A. Gennetian, an economist at Duke University and a co-author of the study, said the results indicated that parents could be trusted to make good decisions. “For one family, that might be food; for another, it might be housing,” she said. Additional research will examine how parents spent the money.
This is not the story Americans want to hear, at least not on the Right, and even most in the center. They want to hear that if you give cash payments to poor families with children, that those parents will not bother working and will also spend that money on irresponsible things. They want to hear that we need work requirements and strict controls on what people can buy with subsidies, because otherwise the money will be spent on booze and drugs and gambling.
That way, they get to believe that people are poor because they are lazy and irresponsible, not that they are poor because our economic model necessitates that a certain amount of people be that poor. We don't like to talk about the fact that if everyone in this country had the kind of jobs we have determined should pay a living wage, most of the work we really need to get done in order to survive would not get done. It's easier on everyone's conscience to believe that people are poor because they are bad than because our system is bad.
People like telling themselves that everyone in America has a chance to "make it," but not only is that not true, we couldn't function as a society if they did.
When people go to the store or to a restaurant now and there aren't enough people working there to take care of them, they're not glad that all of those people may be getting better jobs. Unemployment is actually hitting 50-year lows, but you will still hear people angrily muttering that the reason they have to wait in line so long is "because people don't want to work." Hell, you'll still see signs up at restaurants saying they're not open "because nobody wants to work." The truth is, they do want to work, they just don't want to work jobs that don't pay them enough to live.
If we want and need people to do those jobs — and we obviously do — we need to figure out a way to make it so people can survive off of doing those jobs, and yes, even raise children on those jobs. If that means cash payments from our taxes, then that is what we have to do if we want to continue to benefit from people doing that work.
Those of us who believe that everyone should have food, shelter, health care, education and other necessities are frequently derided as bleeding hearts or pony-wanters or what-have-you. That may be true in some respects. I can definitely say that it hurts my heart to think of children or even adults not having enough to eat or not having some place to live, because I am a human person capable of empathy. That being said, we are the ones looking at the country realistically, while the real pie-in-the-sky idealists are the ones pretending this is a sustainable way to keep going and that it is not going to have detrimental effects to our society.
If straight cash transfers actually do more to alleviate poverty than the item-specific subsidies, work requirements, and means testing, then it is irresponsible and a waste of our tax money to insist upon continuing to do things that way just because it makes people like Joe Manchin feel good. It's childish.
I'm not trying to be all "We Live In A Society" about things, but we literally do live in a society. As much as Americans love their "rugged individualism," no one here is actually an island. There is no one here who is entirely unaffected by things people do or do not do, or who doesn't rely on others to survive in some capacity. So when we invest in children, when we invest in health care and education, we are actually investing in ourselves and creating a world that is better for us all to live in.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse