Greg Duncan
"Our study will be the first to provide definitive evidence of the extent to which young children's cognitive, emotional and brain development is affected by increased family income," says co-principal investigator Greg Duncan, UCI Distinguished Professor of education. Steve Zylius / UCI

Irvine, Calif., Nov. 21, 2017 – Based on a growing body of small-scale studies documenting that brain development in children from low-income households differs from brain development in children from higher-income households, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development has awarded $7.8 million to the University of California, Irvine for a five-year research project.

“This is the first rigorous examination of how family income affects young children’s language, memory, executive function and socioemotional processing – and the corresponding differences in neural structure and function in the brain regions that support these skills,” said Greg Duncan, UCI Distinguished Professor of education and co-principal investigator of the study. “Poverty is especially likely to shape infants’ and toddlers’ development because of the high plasticity and growth of the brain during the first three years of life.”

A one-year pilot project launched in July 2014 that involved 30 mothers established the feasibility of the research approach, in which 1,000 infants born to mothers living below the federal poverty threshold in four ethnically and geographically diverse communities will be assigned at random to experimental or control groups. Follow-up data collection will be conducted when the children are 1, 2 and 3 years old.

Mothers in the experimental group will receive unconditional monthly cash payments of $333 for 40 months, while mothers in the control group will get nominal $20 monthly payments for the same period of time. The experimental group compensation will increase family incomes by about $4,000 per year, an amount linked in economic and developmental psychology studies to significant improvements in children’s scholastic achievement.

“Our results will provide strong and clear evidence about the magnitude and pathways of causal connections between enhanced income and early cognitive function,” Duncan said. “Additional resources enable mothers to afford things like higher-quality housing and nutrition that support the child’s brain development and can also reduce stress and improve their own mental health. These family processes may allow more parental time spent with children and warmer and more responsive interactions.”

Study findings will also inform a host of federal and state policy proposals, with a $4,000 boost in annual income falling within the range of benefits such as the earned income tax credit and housing choice vouchers.

Lisa Gennetian, a research professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development; Katherine Magnuson, a professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Kimberly G. Noble, an associate professor of neuroscience & education at the Columbia University Teachers College; and Hirokazu Yoshikawa, the Courtney Sale Ross University Professor of Globalization & Education at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development are the other principal investigators for the project, which is supported by grant number R1HD087384.

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