Understanding the effects of early investments in children.

Author:Schanzenbach, Diane Whitmore

A growing economics literature is seeking to understand the effects of early childhood influences on later life outcomes. While much recent work explores the effects of health measured at birth, my work and that of others demonstrates the importance of events in early life--but after birth--on long-term outcomes.

A recent review by Douglas Almond and Janet Currie concludes that child and family characteristics measured at school entry explain as much of the variation in adult outcomes as factors such as years of education that are more typically studied by economists. (1) James Heckman argues that the rates of return to human capital investment in disadvantaged populations are highest in early life. (2)

In a series of studies, my coauthors and I have estimated the long-term impacts of interventions in early life. We find that there are promising interventions for children in school settings and through social safety net programs that impact outcomes measured in later adolescence and into adulthood.

Early Life Interventions and Adult Economic and Health Outcomes

The food stamp program is a central part of the U.S. safety net, and provides vouchers to participants that can be used to purchase food at grocery stores. Participation in the food stamp program increases the total resources available to a family, pushing out the budget constraint and raising consumption levels among participants. When the program was introduced in the 1960s, it was rolled out slowly, over a 13-year period, on a county-by-county basis. Hilary Hoynes, Almond, and I investigate the impact of this safety net transfer by exploiting this variation across geography and time of the introduction of the program.

One of our first studies found that babies who were in utero when food stamps were introduced in their county weighed more at birth. (3) But the availability of food stamps at other points during childhood may also have had an impact. In our recent work, we use the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) to test whether children born prior to the introduction of food stamps in their county also benefited from the program. (4) We start with the cohort of children that we initially observe in the 1968 PSID, follow them into adulthood, and observe their completed education, earnings, and detailed health outcomes such as general health status, height and weight, presence of chronic conditions, and work/activity limitations. We find that individuals with access to food stamps before age five had measurably better health in adulthood, exhibiting improved overall health and lower rates of obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

For women, we also find that childhood access to the food stamp program increases economic self-sufficiency in adulthood. Those with access to food stamps as children were more likely to graduate from high school, earn more, and rely less on the social safety net as adults than those who did not. Interestingly, we find positive but diminishing impacts of food stamps by the child's age when the program was...

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