Human Capital and Shocks: Evidence on Education, Health, and Nutrition

Elizabeth Frankenberg, Duncan Thomas

Chapter in NBER book The Economics of Poverty Traps (2019), Christopher B. Barrett, Michael R. Carter, and Jean-Paul Chavas, editors (p. 23 - 56)
Conference held June 28-29, 2016
Published in December 2018 by University of Chicago Press
© 2019 by the National Bureau of Economic Research

Human capital, including health and nutrition, has played a key role in the literature on poverty traps. Economic shocks that affect human capital during early life are thought to translate into permanently reduced levels of human capital and, thereby, push individuals into poverty. Three potential concerns in this literature are explored with empirical evidence drawn from primary longitudinal survey data collected before and after two major shocks in Indonesia: the 1998 financial crisis and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. First, it is very hard to identify shocks that are unanticipated and uncorrelated with other factors that affect human capital outcomes. Second, focusing on child health and human capital, we document that individuals, families and communities invest in strategies that are designed to mitigate the impact of such shocks. The nature and effectiveness of the myriad array of these behaviors vary with the context in ways that are not straightforward to measure or model. Third, the impacts of shocks on child human capital outcomes in the short and longer-term may differ precisely because of the behavioral changes of individuals and their families so that drawing inferences about the longer-term impacts based on negative impacts in the short term can be very misleading. The picture of resilience that emerges from investigating the impacts of major shocks on child health and human capital in the face of these two large-scale shocks in Indonesia is stunning.

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