Smart thinking

Social Services For Families In Need May Literally Make Kids’ Brains Bigger

A new study shows that safety nets like cash assistance and public health benefits do more than just reduce poverty.

Families organize donated food -- a new study has found that social services for families living in ...
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A recent study conducted by researchers at Harvard University suggests that public policies meant to reduce the harms of poverty might also lead to larger brains in children.

The researchers pored over brain images from 11,534 children across 21 sites in 17 different states that offered a range of public services, like health benefits and cash assistance, for low income families. On average, the researchers found that the brains of children living in sites with generous publicly available benefits had a larger hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with learning, memory, and emotional processing.

“The question we had is whether the magnitude of that association — so how much [connection] growing up in a family that's living in poverty has on a child's brain development varies based on where you live,” one of the study’s authors, Harvard psychologist Kate McLaughlin, said.

It’s important to highlight what one of the researchers, David Weissman, said of the findings: they should not be interpreted to mean that children living in poverty automatically have damaged or smaller brains.

"These are really changeable, including by the public policies that we put in place that make things easier and less stressful and more financially manageable for families,” Weissman said.

If anything, the study proves that the consequences of poverty can compound quickly and have interrelated effects. Janelle Matrow, a speech and language specialist, specifically highlighted how damaging stress can be on the entire family system.

“Of course, there's the issue of access to resources,” Matrow told New England Public Media. “But I think we don't always pay enough attention to how stress affects brain development and how it affects parenting, because you want to be present in order to help your child to learn.”

One of the main reasons the researchers opted to compare brain image data is because “hard data” often makes a bigger impression on policy makers than “soft data,” or data that can be interpreted as subjective, like developmental differences in children.

"Most policymakers would say, ‘Well, you know, that could just be the individual family not using the right discipline strategies,’” McLaughlin said. “In my experience, people have a harder time pretending that these associations aren't meaningful and important when you show them that they're having an impact at a biological level on how children's brains are developing."