Becker Friedman Institute

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Returns to Birthweight

We use data on monozygotic twins to obtain improved estimates of the effect of intrauterine nutrient intake on adult health and earnings and thus to evaluate the efficacy of programs aimed at increasing birthweight. We use the results to evaluate the bias in cross-sectional estimates and to assess the proposition that health conditions play a major role in determining the world distribution of income. We show that there is considerable variation in the incidence of low birthweight across countries, and our estimates suggest that there are real payoffs to increasing body weight at birth. Increasing birthweight increases adult schooling attainment and adult height for babies at most levels of birthweight, but has no effect on adult body mass. The effect of increasing birthweight on schooling, moreover, is underestimated by 50% if there is no control for genetic and family background endowments as in cross-sectional estimates. We also find evidence that augmenting birthweight among lowerbirthweight babies, but not among higher-birthweight babies, has significant labor market payoffs. However, shifting the distribution of birthweights in developing countries to that in the United States would
reduce world earnings inequality by less than 1%, far less than indicated by the cross-country correlation between per-worker GDP and birthweight.

Authors: 
Jere Behrman, University of Pennsylvania
Mark Rosenzweig, Yale University
Publication Date: 
May, 2004
Publication Type: 
Journal: 
Review of Economics and Statistics
Volume: 
86
Issue Number: 
2
Pages: 
586-601