Covid-19 causes challenges for years-in-the-making study on babies and poverty

In 2018 and 2019, the researchers, from Columbia University, New York University, Duke University and several other schools, recruited 1,000 mothers at maternity wards in the New York, New Orleans, Omaha and Minneapolis-St. Paul metro areas, all of them living below the poverty line, to participate in a study.

Basically, the project aimed to test, with a grueling and comprehensive approach, the benefits on multiple levels to a child’s mental and emotional development of a guaranteed income akin to a government-provided child allowance. As the payments rolled into the experimental group and the control group went without, the researchers would monitor stress hormones in the mother and genetic changes in both the mother and child, use electroencephalography (EEG) to assess brain function in the children during the study and would videotape family interactions to measure the complexity of language. They would also survey them on family finances.

The researchers had completed about 75 percent of the first home visits, as babies reached 1, when the spreading novel coronavirus stopped all field work.

“We hoped to be able to go back in June,” said National Project Director Lauren Meyer, an education specialist, “but we’ve transitioned most of our data collection online and by phone.”

Because of the pandemic, in-person visits and collection of biological material have paused, creating holes in data patterns they had hoped to analyze.

There’s another complication: How does one draw general insights about economic hardship when Depression-level unemployment and a tidal wave of income instability have redefined economic hardship in a matter of weeks and made family finances, of even a few months, unpredictable?

Many academics and nongovernmental organizations in the middle of a wide variety of research projects are weathering dilemmas like those faced by the Baby’s First Years project. Across the country, covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, forced a sudden halt to most field work and laboratory studies. Researchers spent years planning researching projects, only to have them upended by a pandemic for which no one could have made contingency plans. For disciplines that study how people behave — including psychology, sociology and economics — the problem runs deeper than a work pause. Data from this time will be colored by circumstances that have changed almost all aspects of personal and societal behavior.

“It’s something on everybody’s mind,” said Iqbal Dhaliwal, global executive director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), which conducts microeconomic research around the world with the goal of reducing poverty. “The general applicability of these programs in a normal year will be in question. . . . Any results we get this year will not just be the results of how we dealt with a [long-standing] problem. They will be results of how we dealt with covid problems.”

“Pretty much everyone is impacted,” said Christine Williams, president of the American Sociological Association and a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “The graduate students are reeling,” she added, many because they cannot access populations they had planned to study. “They have tried to pivot their plans.”

Howard Kurtzman, acting director of the American Psychological Association’s Science Directorate, said much psychology research has been curtailed because “anything that involves access to a controlled environment is out.”

The groundwork for Baby’s First Years started in 2013 with prize money from the Jacobs Foundation to Greg Duncan, a professor of education at the University of California at Irvine. Its funding snowballed, thanks to philanthropic institutions, including the Bill and Melinda Gates and Ford foundations, and a grant from the National Institutes of Health. It recruited as lead investigators Katherine Magnuson, professor of social work at University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Kimberly Noble, a neuroscientist at Columbia University.

“While developmental scientists agree that poverty shapes children’s early development,” Meyer said, “there has been no rigorous study to date of how income supports for families affect the brain function and development of infants and toddlers.”

The study is also important, she said, because past research suggests that social service interventions “have at best modest impacts on children’s health and development.” The question is whether direct cash payments would prove a better use of funding — and whether its impact can be scientifically validated.

Baby’s First Years was designed to shut out all factors except cash assistance. “We can tell poverty has some relationship to brain development,” Meyer said, “but maybe it is the schools or maybe it’s the environment.”

To ensure that the effect of the cash was properly tested, the researchers lobbied state legislatures in Minnesota and Nebraska, two states in which they recruited families, to write exemptions for money from research studies into income restrictions on welfare programs. Otherwise, the $333-a-month payments might be nullified if recipients lose an equivalent benefit in welfare payments.

Now, it’s possible the data will be complicated by the federal stimulus checks and other assistance from coronavirus relief programs.

The $4,000 a year paid to the 400 families at roughly $333 a month might get sucked into pandemic-related needs instead of being spent directly on children’s needs. Or maybe “the money will make even more of a difference,” as both their control and experimental groups struggle. “Having money during a pandemic was not one of our research questions,” Meyer said.

The researchers have included some questions about the effects of the coronavirus on employment, but there’s no way to significantly redesign a study already in progress.

They expect that some of the rich array of data they planned to obtain will be lost. During the second-year visits, they planned to take saliva samples to trace epigenetic aging, the process by which the body undergoes aging at a cellular level. It can be different from a person’s calendar age and can be hastened by stress. They also wanted to test mothers’ cognitive span with a computer game. Without in-person visits, such data is impossible to collect. And the EEG scans, planned for first- and third-year visits, were already not possible for some children in year one because of the restrictions imposed on access to labs and hospitals since the pandemic began. They only now are being slowly being loosened.

Meyer said researchers hope to soldier on, using phone interviews and biometrics gathered before and after the covid-19 disruptions to in-person visits to put together a statement on the benefits of cash payments. But she acknowledged that that’s far less than the granular research that had long been in the planning.

“I think we are hoping to be able to keep the findings of our study general enough,” she said. “It depends on how it pans out.”

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