Families who live in poverty face disadvantages that can hinder their children’s development in many ways, write Greg Duncan, Katherine Magnuson, and Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal. As they struggle to get by economically, and as they cope with substandard housing, unsafe neighborhoods, and inadequate schools, poor families experience more stress in their daily lives than more affluent families do, with a host of psychological and developmental consequences. Poor families also lack the resources to invest in things like high-quality child care and enriched learning experiences that give more affluent children a leg up. Often, poor parents also lack the time that wealthier parents have to invest in their children, because poor parents are more likely to be raising children alone or to work nonstandard hours and have inflexible work schedules.
Can increasing poor parents’ incomes, independent of any other sort of assistance, help their children succeed in school and in life? The theoretical case is strong, and Duncan, Magnuson, and Votruba-Drzal find solid evidence that the answer is yes—children from poor families that see a boost in income do better in school and complete more years of schooling, for example. But if boosting poor parents’ incomes can help their children, a crucial question remains: Does it matter when in a child’s life the additional income appears? Developmental neurobiology strongly suggests that increased income should have the greatest effect during children’s early years, when their brains and other systems are developing rapidly, though we need more evidence to prove this conclusively.
The authors offer examples of how policy makers could incorporate the findings they present to create more effective programs for families living in poverty. And they conclude with a warning: if a boost in income can help poor children, then a drop in income—for example, through cuts to social safety net programs like food stamps—can surely harm them.