Currie on inequality at birth

Notes for Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Main points

The chief question we sought to address was “what does the author want us to take away from this, other than the obvious point that the children of poor people tend to have worse lives than the children of people who are not poor?”

The takeaways

We know that what happens before you are born can affect the course of your life. Everyone knows you’re not supposed to smoke, drink, or do drugs while pregnant. But few of us know the severity of the effects of environmental pollution. As Dani pointed out, exposure to carbon monoxide can be many times worse than smoking (Currie 2011, 5). Like her, I did not know that.

We also probably had a good sense that low birth weight is a predictor of poor health. But we did not know that it is also strongly correlated with poor educational achievement and earnings. And even if we had guessed those things, we would not have known how precisely the effects could be quantified.

Finally, there is a surprising recommendation at the end. It may be that the best way of dealing with the effects of environmental pollution on the poor is to do something other than trying to remove the sources. Doing something place specific like cleaning up a toxic site increases the cost of housing there, driving poor people out, presumably to some equally unpleasant place. So if you want to improve the lot of the poor, you have to focus on the people themselves.

The data

I gather that it’s incredibly hard to get good data out of something as complicated as environmental pollution. This is just me, but I was floored by the clever ways Currie got her data. The EZ Pass study was awesome. Actually, pretty much everything on pages 7–8 impressed me. But especially the EZ Pass.


Currie, Janet. 2011. “Inequality at Birth: Some Causes and Consequences.” American Economic Review 101 (3): 1–22. doi:10.1257/aer.101.3.1.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, and Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2014. It was posted September 23, 2014.
Freedom, Markets, and Well-being