Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2021

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.

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).

Our discussion

I seem to have lost my notes. Sorry!

Here are a few things from me.

First, if you are curious about the debate over the difference between person-based policies as opposed to place-based ones, you might have a look at a Brookings Institution publication titled Place-Based Policies for Shared Economic Growth.

Second, I said that I was not crazy about framing the project in terms of equal opportunity. It seems to me that the problem here is that we are poisoning babies. The effects of poisoning them on their ability to compete in the labor market count but they are not the most fundamental reason why it is troubling. If you cut off my hand, I would not be able to type as well and so I would suffer economic losses. But it would still be wrong even if I were retired or uninterested in working. It’s my hand!

Another way of putting that is that we could equalize things by exposing everyone’s kids to the same level of pollution. Or, if you are more focused on the racial disparities, we could seek to make it so that exposure to pollution were strictly a matter of economic class rather than race. But those proposals leave a sour taste. I don’t think anyone would be happy with them. If so, that suggests it isn’t the inequality or racial injustice that really bugs us.


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