In this Jan. 11, 2022, file photo, hairdresser Chelsea Woody stands outside her car at a grocery store in Charleston, West Virginia. Credit: John Raby / AP

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It’s not exactly breaking news that poverty can be connected to poor health outcomes. Shorter life expectancy. Higher infant mortality. Developmental delays. These are just a few of the established health challenges associated with lower incomes.

What is new, however, is a recent study finding that giving money on a monthly basis to new mothers experiencing poverty may change their child’s brain activity in the first year of life. That takes some assumptions about the health impacts of poverty (and of poverty reduction efforts) from the realm of correlation into causation.

That’s a big deal. And it should get attention in Congress, where the expanded child tax credit passed by Democrats last year has been allowed to expire amid a stalemate on President Joe Biden’s larger Build Back Better proposal.

“While family income has been found to be associated with developmental differences in children’s brain structure and function, there is considerable debate as to whether growing up in poverty causes differences in early brain development, or whether poverty is merely correlated with other factors that are the true cause of early differences,” the group of researchers from several universities wrote in the journal of the National Academy of Sciences. “Here, using a randomized control trial design, we offer evidence on this correlation vs. causation debate by showing that an intervention designed to reduce poverty appeared to cause changes in children’s brain functioning in ways that have been linked to subsequent higher cognitive skills.”

This “Baby’s First Years” study involves researchers from Duke University, New York University, Columbia University, The University of California at Irvine, the University of Maryland and the University of Wisconsin. They are providing monthly, unconditional payments to 1,000 low-income mothers for the first seven years of their babies’ lives and monitoring brain activity in the children. Some of the women were randomly selected to receive larger monetary gifts of $333 per month, while others receive a smaller $20 per month. This allows researchers to compare brain activity in the two groups.

After the first year, infants in the group with large gifts saw higher levels of certain brain activity associated with better language, cognitive and social-emotional development compared with the group with smaller gifts.

“The most important findings will come in the future, when the kids are grown enough to show everyone their cognitive and linguistic abilities, their self-control and other important achievements of early development,” Dr. Martha Farah, a University of Pennsylvania cognitive neuroscientist at the Uni was not involved in the study, told NBC News.

We recognize that this study is not complete. Nor is it a completely apples-to-apples comparison with the expanded child tax credit, though both feature monthly support in the ballpark of $300 per child.

Even with some caveats, the early results should crystallize for lawmakers what was already clear with the expanded child tax credit: Now is not the time to be abandoning a proven poverty and hunger  reduction tool.

Millions of families across the country benefited from the expanded credit. According to the progressive Maine Center for Economic policy, about four out of five Maine kids live in households benefiting from it. An overwhelming amount of the families receiving it say they used the money to pay for necessities. And that’s at a time when many of those necessities are costing them more.

“Everything is expensive. Inflation is so high,” one mother whose family has benefited from the expected tax credit told NPR recently. “With six people in a family, there’s always something that comes up. Somebody gets sick; someone has to go to the doctor.”

There have been some early signs of bipartisan willingness to craft some sort of replacement for the expired child tax credit expansion. The recent results from the “Baby’s First Years” study emphasize the powerful impact this assistance can have for America’s children and their families.

Congress is constantly wrestling with a long to-do list and short attention span, but this is an issue that must not get lost in the shuffle from one debate to the next.

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Opinion Editor Susan Young, Deputy Opinion Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked for the BDN...