A new NBER working paper (Intergenerational Transmission of Inequality: Maternal Endowments, Investments, and Birth Outcomes by Sadegh Eshaghnia & James J. Heckman) uses models to analyze the impact of mothers’ characteristics (primary mothers’ health and education) on the likelihood of a baby being born small for gestational age (SGA).
- Cognition and Education: Cognitive ability significantly affects birth outcomes. Encouraging better educational opportunities for women can lead to healthier babies.
- Personality and Smoking: Personality traits influence smoking behavior during pregnancy.
- Physical Fitness and SGA: Physical fitness is crucial in determining newborn health. Physical health has a direct positive effect on reducing the likelihood of an SGA baby.
- Impact of Choices: Decisions influence the SGA gap. Lower quartiles of cognitive and social endowments, up to 70% and 95% of the SGA gap are because of choices. These results show the importance of giving expectant mothers the tools to make better choices.
The research findings suggest three potential policy interventions that can reduce the prevalence of SGA:
- Early Childhood Intervention: Programs that focus on both stimulation & nutrition help mothers (such as Americans’ WIC program), reducing the risk of SGA babies.
- Educational Policy: Helping women to gain an education beyond the basics lowers the probability, especially universal or subsidized higher education .
- Smoking Cessation Intervention: Smoking cessation programs, especially during pregnancy, profoundly impact. The study found that not smoking after the third trimester of pregnancy reduces the probability of delivering an SGA baby by 11 percentage points. Such interventions are even more effective for mothers with a less healthy physical constitution.
A Policy Preview
A notable example from the paper is that a nutritional intervention aiming to improve physical fitness emerges as an effective strategy. When weighing the impacts of various policies, a prenatal anti-smoking programs tailored for women with weaker physical health show greater efficacy in reducing SGA prevalence.
Mothers’ health and decisions (or lack of due to inequality and material conditions) during pregnancy play a pivotal role in determining the newborn health. This research underscores the potential of targeted interventions – from educational policies to smoking cessation programs – or not so targeted – universal cash transfers like Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend – in ensuring a healthy start to life for the next generation, especially as currently lifespans in the US and UK are dropping for millenials and younger generations.