Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2019

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.

As Professor Brown noted in her initial presentation, this is a marvelous example of how to amass data. Currie takes something obvious, that it’s bad to live near toxic waste, and shows with great precision exactly how bad it is. That is an achievement in its own right and it also allows us to compare this problem with others that, on their face, are also pretty bad.

There is a twist. We generally think of environmental justice in terms of places. Roughly speaking, the thought is something like, “we should clean up these places where poor people live to make society more just.” But Currie thinks that the lesson of her piece is that we should look for policies that address the people affected rather than trying to clean up places. Why? Because cleaning up a place makes it more expensive. The poor people then move to a place that’s just as bad as the old one was (Currie 2011, 17).

What Would Equal Opportunity Be?

There are lots of ways that we are unequal from the start. My eyesight, immune system, and left hip were always going to be worse than other people’s. Don’t cry for me, though, because I have a leg up in a few other areas; it worked out OK.

Why are these inequalities from birth so especially offensive?

Clyde said it’s because they’re preventable. Rachel said something similar: the description of the problem yields a solution.

Niyati noted that if it was the inequality we were interested in, then we could even things out by depriving people of information about the pollution in their neighborhoods. The veil of ignorance on steroids! (I think it would be hard to keep under wraps, though.)

I said that I wasn’t sure which one of two different moral ideas was operative for me:

  1. It’s bad because it’s unequal or unfair: the children of poor people start off worse in life than the children of rich people do. And it’s not the sort of thing that they can overcome through hard work or pluck.

  2. It’s bad because it harms people and we shouldn’t harm people.

If it’s inequality that is driving us, would we be OK with equalizing exposure to pollution? If it’s harm, we might only be satisfied if no one is exposed. Of course, it’s quite improbable that we could do that. It’s possible that our uncritical moral thinking about these cases does not lead in a productive direction.


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