Financial Coaching Offers New Paths To A Healthy Future

With the enhanced Child Tax Credit, “we found that families were better able to afford food, catch up on rent, and parents reported better health outcomes,” says Allison Bovell-Ammon, director of policy strategy for Children’s Health Watch, a national nonprofit advocacy and research organization based at Boston Medical Center. “We also found that families were less stressed when they got the payments.”

The effects might be even more profound. Baby’s First Years, a unique multicenter study examining how monthly cash payments affect early brain development, began in 2018. One thousand low-income mothers of newborns were randomly assigned to receive either $333 per month ($4,000 per year) or $20 per month ($240 per year) on a debit card.

Although the pandemic derailed in-person data collection from March 2020 to mid-2022, first-year electroencephalography results from 435 babies showed higher-frequency (more fast-paced) brain activity in babies of mothers receiving the higher cash amounts—a sign of brain development associated with thinking and learning. Because the two groups studied were similar, as measured on twenty-seven characteristics at baseline, researchers can conclude that the higher payments led to the differences in brain development, says Kimberly Noble, a pediatrician and neuroscientist at Columbia University, in New York City, who is the study’s lead principal investigator for neuroscience.

“We were very excited by this early result,” says Noble, who cautioned that follow-up electroencephalograms will show whether the differences continue as the children get older.

Noble notes that prior studies already show an association between income support and health outcomes—the “wealth is health” paradigm. “Social determinants are a key aspect of health care, especially pediatric health care,” she says. “Anything that we as pediatricians can do to optimize access to programs and services for people with low income is likely to benefit children’s health and well-being.”