Meeting the Basic Needs of Children: Does Income Matter?

August 2009

Lisa A. Gennetian, The Brookings Institution and Nina Castells and Pamela Morris, MDRC

Download 'working_paper09-11.pdf'.


We review existing research and policy evidence about income as an essential component to meeting children’s basic needs—that is, income represented as the purest monetary transfer for moving families from living below a poverty threshold to living above it. Social scientists have made great methodological strides in establishing whether income has independent effects on the cognitive development of low-income children. We argue that researchers are well-positioned for more rigorous investigations about how and why income affects children, but only first with thoughtful and creative regard for conceptual clarity, and on understanding income’s potentially inter-related influences on socio-emotional development, mental, and physical health. We also argue for more focus on income’s effects across the childhood age span and within different family structures. We end with a description of two-generation and cafeteria-style programs as the frontiers of the next generation in income-enhancement policies, and with the promise of insights from behavioral economics.

Child Well-being and Child Development, Poverty Trends and Measurement