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NBER recently posted a report on the Baby’s First Years RCT, studying initial effects of providing an unconditional cash transfer to low-income US mothers with newborns. Quick take: High-quality RCT, interesting results but too early to tell if there’s any meaningful child or family benefit.

Program & Study Design:

  • The study randomly assigned 1,003 mothers in 4 US cities to a treatment group that gets a large unconditional cash gift ($4000/yr for 4 years) or a control group that gets a small cash gift ($220/yr for 4 years). The paper reports findings at 12-month mark.

Key Findings:

  • No discernible effect on families' workforce participation (i.e., cash gift doesn't cause parents to work less).

  • Surprisingly, no discernible effect on families' self-reported financial hardship/stress.

  • Some positive effects on families’ spending on child, & on mothers' engagement in early learning activities with child.


  • Based on careful review, this is a high-quality RCT (e.g., low sample attrition, good baseline balance). But one concern is that outcomes are self-reported, & so are vulnerable to social desirability bias (e.g., mothers wanting to report they're using the gift in ways that benefit baby).

  • Also, it’s unknown whether early effects on parenting behavior (e.g., engagement in learning activity) actually leads to long-term benefit to child (e.g., better cognitive outcomes).

  • Fortunately, the study will measure longer-term outcomes (e.g., child cognitive development, parent employment) using objective measures not just self-reports.

  • PS: An earlier paper reported positive 12-month effects on infant brain activity (measured with EEG). But I think this finding is not reliable due to very high sample attrition (>50%) and other concerns.

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