Professor Janet Currie *88 examines the impact on children of the socioeconomic divide.
Professor Janet Currie *88 examines the impact on children of the socioeconomic divide.

For Janet Currie *88, a professor of economics and public affairs and director of the Center for Health and Wellbeing, a host of public-health and policy issues can be examined by asking one question: What effect do they have on children?

Currie has spent most of her career studying this question from different angles. She has examined early-intervention programs such as Head Start to gauge their effectiveness, and Medicaid to see how it helps young mothers and their children.

Lately, she has studied how environmental factors such as drinking-water quality affect the health of children and young mothers. In the working paper “Something in the Water: Contaminated Drinking Water and Infant Health” (published in March), Currie and her co-authors looked at birth records in New Jersey from 1997 to 2007. They found that living in an area with poor water quality was associated with a 14.5 percent increase in low birth weight among the children of less-educated mothers.

Mothers with higher levels of education were more likely to move out of an area with contaminated water. Children with low birth weight have a higher risk for health problems later in life. This study built on the argument she made in a 2011 paper, “Inequality at Birth,” in which she maintains that the socioeconomic divide in U.S. society can be traced to the earliest stages of life. 

“We think of people being born the same, and things happening to them after that causing inequality,” says Currie. But what happens to people even before they are born can lead to inequality, she says. 

For example, she points out that “children born to less-educated and minority mothers are indeed more likely to be exposed to pollution in utero.” As with contaminated water, exposure to pollution during pregnancy can lead to a greater risk of negative health outcomes for children later in life.

In another paper, Currie surveyed the health of future mothers who were exposed to disease as children, finding that they were more likely to develop diabetes as an adult. “The exposed mothers are less likely to be married, have fewer years of education, and are more likely to gain over 60 pounds or smoke while pregnant,” the study concluded. All of these factors affect the health of their children.

To improve the health of children, she suggests, policymakers could begin by improving the health environment of young mothers. Cutting down on polluted air and water is one way to achieve that goal, but education is crucial, too. What is needed, she says, is more research to help determine the way forward.

“This is an exciting research agenda,” she wrote in “Inequality at Birth,” “and one that is still in its infancy!”