It is now well known that early life environmental conditions affect a person’s well-being over their lifetime. Adult height outcomes provide a valuable window into a person’s in utero and early childhood nutritional intake such that within the same genetic group taller individuals have been exposed to higher quality nutritional intake. Height is important in that it relates to general health as well as cognitive development. Individuals with adequate early childhood nutritional intake are likely to be taller, healthier and more educated. Conversely, shorter individuals would have been exposed to poorer quality nutritional intake and would have poorer health as well as educational attainment which limits their opportunities in the job market.
My research “Father’s Employment and Sons’ Stature: The Long Run Effects of a Positive Regional Employment Shock in South Africa’s Mining Industry” shows that an increase in monthly incomes of between R14 and R40 in 1975 in Transkei and Ciskei led to an increase in the heights of male children born in 1974 and 1975 of one to two centimetres. Annual household incomes in Transkei and Ciskei were around R80 at the time.
The study shows the importance of even small increases in incomes on people’s long run outcomes. Communities that face extensive exposure to poverty and therefore poorer levels of nutrition tend to be shorter than communities that are genetically similar but experience higher levels of nutrition. If we consider that height represents better health and better cognitive development then small increases in household incomes, in absolute terms, can lead to better health and more education. Both of these are important considerations in South Africa today.
Children born into poverty and exposed to poor nutrition in infancy are likely to have poorer health as they get older and are even likely to die younger than those with better childhood nutrition. It is now well known that adults exposed to poor nutrition in early childhood are more likely to suffer from physical disabilities that affect their ability to work, and they are more likely to earn lower incomes when they do work. While this is of course a devastating outcome for those with poor nutrition, there is also the impact on South Africa’s health care system to be considered. Children born into poverty in 2015 are likely to impose substantial demands on the health care system and the social welfare system in the future as they get older. This is an expense that will be borne by the state.
With respect to education, adults who have experienced poor childhood nutrition are substantially less educated than those with better nutrition. Early childhood nutrition is very important for brain development. Children who have not had enough to eat at very young ages are likely to drop out of school earlier. The implication is that children born into poverty will not be able to rise out of poverty through education simply because they have poor cognitive development. This will be true regardless of any changes to the supply of education in future years. As is well known, adults with low levels of educational attainment struggle to find employment in the South African job market. This too will be an expense borne by the state.
My research has very clear policy implications for early childhood nutrition. We need to invest in the nutrition of pregnant women and small children now in order to ensure that they have an improved quality of life in adulthood. Improvements to the health system and the education system are insufficient if the level of a person’s quality of life has already been decided by the time they are two years old.