Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2018

Currie on Inequality at Birth


Currie’s paper shows that babies born in polluted neighborhoods are significantly worse off for the rest of their lives than ones born in environmentally cleaner areas. Since poor people tend to live in the more polluted areas, this is a way in which inequality persists from generation to generation.

Isn’t This Obvious?

Generally speaking, yes, it’s obvious that growing up in polluted areas is bad for you. And yet right here in Claremont they are building housing next to the 210 freeway.

Here are some not so obvious things that I got out of this paper. (And yes, I know I’m the one who started the whole “it’s obvious” thing. Just trying to spark some discussion, folks.)

First, the methods used to quantify the effects are innovative. In particular, I’m a huge fan of the EZ pass study (Currie 2011, 5). Every year I read this, I shake my head in amazement at how ingenious that is.

Second, it’s important to be able to quantify the effects with some precision. The better the information you have, the better you will be able to make decisions when you have to compare different policies and their effects.

Third, she has a very important point at the very end (Currie 2011, 17). It is that so-called place based remedies won’t work and person based remedies are the way to address the problem she has documented. If so, that turns most people’s thinking about environmental justice upside down.

What Would Equal Opportunity Be?

Once again, I asked what understanding of equality and equal opportunity was implicit in this economist’s work. Remy and I both converged on the thought that equal opportunity would mean something like everyone starts life, undamaged, capable of living up to the potential left to them by their genes. Again, hold this thought until we get to Rawls.

A couple other ideas were in the air. One idea is that pollution is society’s fault, unlike, the genes for astigmatism, which are nature’s fault. The thought is that it’s society’s responsibility to deal with the problems it causes. I think there’s something to that. At the same time, the socially caused inequalities are sometimes complex and hard to correct while the naturally caused ones are sometimes simple and easy. I was doomed to have bad eyesight from the start; that’s nature’s fault, not society’s. But the problem is easily corrected with glass lenses on either side of my nose.

One more thing. When I read this article, I think less about inequality than I do about simple harm. That is, what seems morally offensive to me isn’t just that the babies who live in polluted areas are going to find it harder to compete for jobs. It’s that they have been harmed by being poisoned. Like most people, I have pretty strict rules about not harming babies and so when I read about how polluted air is about as bad as smoking packs of cigarettes a day, it seems to me that my rules have been violated.

Of course, there are lots of problems with applying a strict no-harm rule to something like environmental pollution. My point is just that there are two different moral objections raised by Currie’s paper: one about unequal opportunities and the other about harm. If I were using Currie for my thesis, I might use the philosophy part to discuss the differences between these two objections.


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