Government Assistance Linked to Better Child Development

FRIDAY, March 7 (HealthDay News) -- Extra government financial support of poor families boosts children's physical and mental development, a U.S. study concludes.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that children in low-income families in Mexico who received an extra amount of cash from a government-run conditional cash transfer program were taller, less likely to be overweight, and scored higher on motor, cognitive and language tests than children in families that received less money.

The findings were published in the March 8 issue of The Lancet.

Cash benefits in traditional welfare programs are based on a family's income or residence in a specific geographical area. Conditional cash transfer programs give money to low-income families if they meet specific requirements, such as making sure their children attend school or get vaccinated. Food and nutritional supplements are also included in some of these programs, according to background information in the study.

"Previous research has shown positive outcomes for child development from conditional cash transfer programs, but the general assumption, particularly from the public health perspective, was that the improvements were the result of the health and education components rather than the cash. This new study is the first to tease out the impact of the money from the other elements of the program." lead author Lia Fernald, assistant professor in public health nutrition at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health, said in a prepared statement.

Fernald and her colleagues didn't analyze exactly how the extra cash boosted child development but believe the additional money helped families buy more nutritious food or medicine, or perhaps purchase items for the home -- such as a refrigerator or a covering for a dirt floor -- that improve their lives.

"Even the purchase of additional books or toys for the children -- something we often take for granted in this country -- could help stimulate cognitive development," Fernald said.

"Also, the additional cash could have the psychological benefit of taking some of the pressure off the mothers. These are families who are at the bottom 20th percentile in Mexico for household income. When relieved of the constant worry about not providing enough food for their children, mothers may feel less depressed and may be better able to interact with their children."

In 1997, the Mexican government became the first to offer a conditional cash transfer program, which now includes more than 5 million families and has been replicated in more than 20 developing nations.

Last year, New York City launched the first conditional cash transfer program in a developing country. It's already distributed more than $740,000 to more than 1,400 families who've met specific criteria related to education, health, and workforce participation and training.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about child development.

SOURCE: University of California, Berkeley, news release, March 6, 2008