Child poverty and policies.

In many countries there is a higher incidence of income poverty among children than in the adult population.[1] This is particularly acute in developing areas like Latin America but affects developed nations too.[2] In the United States (US), for instance, the official income poverty for 2014 shows that more than 1 in 5 children are poor whereas adult poverty is well below 15%.[3] A growing literature shows that adverse individual circumstances during childhood can have long-lasting effects. Besides efficiency considerations, this is unacceptable from an ethical point of view if we embrace the equality of opportunity approach, and we consider that decisions that affect individuals during childhood, at least the most relevant ones, are out of children’s control. Given all this, it is arguably key to accumulate evidence on the long run effect of childhood circumstances into adulthood. In this post, I would briefly review three recent empirical papers that show how different policies targeting or affecting low-income children have had important long-term effects on the beneficiaries.

These three recent articles have several features in common. They all analyze the long-run impact of exposure during childhood to policies targeted to poor families in the US. And as we will see, they all find somehow hopeful results. Interestingly, they differ in the type of policy under study and the period of analysis as well as in the methodology applied to identify causal effects. The first article by Aizer, Eli, Ferrie and Lleras-Muney (2016)[4] analyzes the effect of an early unconditional cash transfer program in the US, the Mothers’ Pension program, which was run from 1911 to 1935 and offered a monthly benefit to poor mothers with children. The study focuses on a sample of boys born between 1900 and 1925 whose mothers applied to the program. In the second article, Hoynes, Whitmore Schanzenbach and Almond (2016)[5] study the long-run effect of the Food Stamp Program, which was introduced in the 60s and early 70s, and provides low-income families a transfer by means of a voucher to purchase food. The authors study the effect of exposure to the program for a sample of adults born between 1956 and 1981 whose parents had less than a high school education. Finally, in the third article, Chetty, Hendren and Katz (2016)[6] study the effect of the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) experiment, which was run in the mid-1990s in 5 US cities and offered subsidized housing vouchers to randomly selected poor families to move from high-poverty areas to lower poverty ones.

The main question here is whether these types of policies are able to compensate to some extent children from low-income families so that they achieve better outcomes once they reach adulthood. The answer seems to be positive in most cases. The first government-sponsored welfare program in the US, the Mothers’ Pension Program, led to an increase in longevity among boys with successful applicant mothers of about 1 year. The authors provide suggestive evidence of the potential channels underlying this increase in longevity: results suggest that the program resulted in an increase of 0.3 years of education, a 14 percent increase in income in early adulthood and a 50 percent reduction in the probability of being underweight with respect to male children of rejected applicants.

Food Stamp full exposure from before birth to age 5, in turn, reduced metabolic syndrome index in adulthood, which is a weighted average including obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attack and diabetes. The program also improved economic outcomes among women. Specifically, full exposure until age 5 led to an increase in economic self-sufficiency, measured as a weighted average of seven items including educational attainment, poverty status, income and receipt of welfare programs. Additional exposure to the program after age 5 does not lead to better health adult outcomes, which highlights the relevance of early exposure to this kind of policy.

Finally, the program facilitating moving to better neighborhoods seems to have been effective for those kids moving before reaching adolescence: they have higher college attendance and substantially higher incomes as adults and lower single parenthood rates than those who were not selected to get the housing voucher. However, children that move during adolescence have slightly negative effects. This implies that the long exposure to the program during childhood is needed to obtain long-term benefits.

Overall, these recent studies show that intervention during childhood can improve life conditions for disadvantaged children in the long-run. Reversing the reasoning, this implies that in the absence of good policies targeted to low-income children, they may suffer the consequences of having being born and raised in disadvantaged families over their life cycle.


[1] I am referring here to income poverty measures that assume an equal allocation of resources within the members of the household. This means that the higher incidence of poverty among children is not due to an unfair allocation of resources towards children within the household but to factors such as welfare policies not being targeted to families with children or poor families having a larger number of kids, to provide some examples.

[2] See for instance Cecchini, S., Filgueira, F., Martínez, R., & Rossel, C. (2015). Towards Universal Social Protection. Latin American Pathways and Policy Tools, ECLAC Book, Santiago.

[3]Source:https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2015/demo/p60-252.pdf.

[4] Anna Aizer, Shari Eli, Joseph Ferrie and Adriana Lleras-Muney (2016), The Long-Run Impact of Cash Transfers to Poor Families, American Economic Review, 106(4): 935-71.

[5] Hilary Hoynes, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach and Douglas Almond (2016). Long-Run Impacts of Childhood Access to the Safety Net, American Economic Review, 106(4): 903-34.

[6] Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence F. Katz (2016). The Effects of Exposure to Better Neighborhoods on Children: New Evidence from the Moving
 to Opportunity Experiment, American Economic Review, 106(4): 855-902.

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