Margaret Olivia Sage Scholar Greg Duncan Helps Lead Pioneering Research on Early Childhood Development

September 23, 2019

Greg Duncan, Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of California, Irvine, and a current Margaret Olivia Sage Scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation, has spent much of his career examining the problem of child poverty in America. Poverty impacts approximately 14-16% of American children each year, with much higher rates for black and Hispanic children than for white children. Current research indicates that poverty in early childhood can lead to a number of negative life outcomes in adulthood, including lower earnings, increased rates of nonmarital births, reliance on food stamps, and poorer physical health. Emerging research suggests that household income may even affect the amount of total gray matter in toddlers’ brains.

Duncan was chair of the committee that produced the recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s consensus study report, A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty (2019). The report concludes that child poverty has significant negative outcomes on child well-being. It includes a number of policy and program recommendations designed to reduce the number of children living in poverty by one half over ten years, including expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, and SNAP benefits programs, increasing housing vouchers to low-income families, raising the federal minimum wage, and instituting a universal child allowance.

Duncan is also part of a team of researchers leading a pioneering project, Baby’s First Years, a randomized controlled trial that will explore the role of poverty reduction in promoting early childhood development. The main research question is whether monthly cash gifts can improve family life and child well-being in low-income families. Other principal investigators include RSF grantee Kimberly Noble (Columbia University), RSF grantee Katherine Magnuson (University of Wisconsin, Madison), Lisa Gennetian (Duke University), RSF trustee Hirokazu Yoshikawa (New York University), and Nathan Fox (University of Maryland, College Park), a member of RSF’s Biology and Social Science Working Group.  

The research project follows 1,000 mothers and their young children in four areas: New York City, New Orleans, Omaha, Nebraska and Minnesota’s Twin Cities. The women, whose income falls below the poverty line, were recruited to participate in the study at the medical centers where they gave birth. Participants were then randomly selected for a lottery that decides whether they receive cash gifts of $333 per month ($4,000 per year) or are a part of a control group that receives $20 per month ($240 per year) for 40 months, or until just after their child’s third birthday. Follow-up one-on-one studies with mothers and their children will take place at the first, second, and third children’s birthday marks. Among the variables being measured are child health, child cognitive and emotional development, child brain function, maternal health, family income and employment, and family life. Enrollment and baseline interviews of study participants were completed in summer 2019. Follow up interviews, including a qualitative study on the impact of the cash gifts on a subset of participating mothers, are expected in 2020, 10-12 months after the children’s births.

The project has raised more than $15 million in funding, over half of which directly underwrites the cash gifts to participating families. Funding support for this project comes from an array of private and public entities, including the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Annie E. Casey, Bill & Melinda Gates, and Ford foundations, and the New York City Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity. This research initiative has already generated press attention, with coverage in The EconomistWall Street Journal, and NPR, as well as a popular TED Talk by Kimberly Noble. 

Duncan was previously a visiting scholar at RSF during both the 2016-2017 and 2004-2005 academic years. He is co-editor of the RSF books, Whither Opportunity? (2011), For Better and for Worse (2002), Neighborhood Poverty  Volume 1  and  Volume 2 (2000),  Consequences of Growing Up Poor (1999), and is co-author of the RSF book Higher Ground (2007). He is also the recipient of multiple grants from the foundation. 


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