Children from low-income families are more likely than other children to have serious health problems. And, as Anne Case and Christina Paxson show, childhood health problems can prevent poor children from achieving economic success as adults.
Income-related disparities in childhood health are evident at birth or even before, and the disparities grow more pronounced as children grow older. Not only do poor children have more severe health problems than wealthier children, but they fare less well than wealthier children who have the same problems. They also receive less and lower-quality medical care for their problems. And poor families may be less well equipped to manage their children's health problems, which could worsen their effects.
The available U.S. data sets do not allow researchers to track individuals' health and economic well-being from birth into adulthood, but three British data sets are producing growing evidence that health in childhood is a determinant of educational attainment, which in turn affects adults' employment opportunities and wages. Children in poor health are also more likely to have poor health as adults, and their health as adults adversely affects their economic status.
Case and Paxson note that eliminating income-related disparities in health problems in childhood would do little to reduce earnings disparities between richer and poorer adults. However, they emphasize that, for children in poor health, improvement in physical condition in childhood would lead to substantial improvement in economic circumstances.
The authors cite several areas, including expanded prenatal care, maternal smoking cessation programs, and nutrition programs, as deserving particular attention. They contend that increased access to health care is not sufficient to improve children's health. The next wave of policies should focus on improving the quality of health care and strengthening the ability of parents to manage their children's health problems.