As It Happens

Babies' health improved when pregnant mothers given cash, no strings attached

A new study from Manitoba shows that giving low-income expectant mothers $81 more each month to spend however they choose can dramatically improve the health of their babies.
One in four Cambridge mothers leaving city to give birth. (The Canadian Press)

Eighty-one dollars per month may not seem like a lot. But, for some pregnant women in Manitoba, it makes a big difference. 

Researchers have just published a large-scale study of the province's Healthy Baby Prenatal Benefit. The benefit gives up to $81 each month to low-income expectant mothers, whose annual household income is less than $32,000. The mothers can use the money however they want. 

Very few programs trust women to make good decisions during pregnancy.- Marni Brownell, University of Manitoba

The study was published in the journal PediatricsMarni Brownell, the study's lead author, is a professor at the University of Manitoba. Here's an excerpt of Brownell's conversation with As it Happens host Carol Off. 

CAROL OFF: In this study, you looked at pregnant women who were given just a few extra dollars a day. Give us an idea of what difference this made to their babies?

MARNI BROWNELL: Well, it turns out that those women ... ended up having babies that were less likely to be low birth weight and less likely to be born pre-term. And those women were also more likely to breastfeed. You might think, 'Why is money given during pregnancy increasing breasfeeding?' But, with the money, came some information about how to have a healthy baby.

CO: But the money was given no strings attached?

MB: It was indeed. Many programs provide some supports to low-income pregnant woman — both in Canada and the U.S. But, very often, they come with strings attached — the women have to go to certain programs or they're given food stamps so that they can buy food. Very few programs trust women to make good decisions during pregnancy.

Marni Brownell is a professor at the University of Manitoba. (Submitted by Marni Brownell)

CO: Why has there been this idea that you shouldn't give [expectant mothers] cash?

MB: I think, especially with poor people, we have this idea that we can't trust them to make good decisions. I think we've heard before, maybe not in terms of pregnant woman, but in giving money to poor people, 'Oh, they're just going to spend it on beer and popcorn.' But our study shows, at least in this case, that wasn't what they did with the money. 

CO: So you didn't really track what they were using [the money for], but you did talk to some of the mums to find out what they were doing.

MB: They were often using the money for what we anticipated — healthy food, making rent. Some of the mums also talked about planning for baby. They were putting away a little money so that they could buy baby clothes or diapers . . . The other thing I can't help thinking about is that getting that money once a month and not being told, 'You have to spend it this way' . . . lets these women know that they're trusted. I have to think that's worth something too, in terms of their baby's outcome.

For more on this story, take a listen to our full interview.