Nutrition, pregnancy, and long-run labor market outcomes

By now economists, researchers, and policymakers are all well aware of the impact of a child’s earliest years on their future economic prospects. Before children enter school at age 5, events and circumstances play a huge role in an individual’s future socioeconomic status.  One of those circumstances can be poor nutrition, which a new research paper shows may have effects on a child even before they are born. A new paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that nutrition during pregnancy can have a significant influence on individuals’ adult outcomes.

One of the problems of trying to pin down the effect of anything in economic studies is being able to find a clean break or dividing line that allows researcher to identify the one change that made the difference. The new paper by economists Marie Louise Schultz-Nielsen and Jane Greve of the Rockwool Foundation Research Unit, and Erdal Tekin, of American University pinpoints one such change by studying the effect of nutrition on unborn children during Ramadan, the holy month of Islam. During Ramadan, the vast majority of Muslims are required to fast from sunrise to sunset. The authors show that prospective parents don’t plan pregnancies around Ramadan so the timing of the fasting is likely to be random.

Specifically, Schultz-Neilsen, Tekin, and Greve look at the adult outcomes of Muslim men living in Denmark who were in utero during Ramadan. They are particularly interested in looking at the effect on labor market outcomes such as employment, annual salary, and wages. They find that men who were in the 7th month of gestation when Ramadan occurred had significantly lower labor market outcomes. Employment for these men was 2.6 percentage points lower, and their annual income was 5.3 percent less than a worker who did not have any in utero period overlap with Ramadan.

The researchers found no effect on wages, which supports their hypothesis that the lack of nutrition in utero made these affected workers more likely to go on disability sooner than those who did not experience less nutrition. This explains why the subjects of their research experienced higher rates of unemployment and lower annual incomes later in life while their wages were not significantly affected.

The applicability of this study to other changes of in utero environments and other countries is uncertain. But the broader point shows that events that happen before a person is even born, particularly when it comes to nutrition, can have significant impacts on a person’s adult life. A period of hunger experienced by your mother can cast a shadow over a worker’s entire lifetime of earnings. A lack of nutrition isn’t just an issue for a person in that immediate time frame; it can impact the next generation.

December 9, 2014


Childcare & Early Education

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