Chinese Evidence on Second Generation Impact of Famine

December 24, 2013 9:30 AM

A recurring subject of this blog has been the long-term impact of famine on people born in famines or subject to famine conditions as infants. The negative long-term effects on physical and mental health, and life outcomes more broadly, has been documented in a number of settings in both Europe and Asia.

Less well understood is the impact on the second generation following a famine. There are two potential avenues of transmission. First, there is a direct biological impact induced through famine-related effects on the mother (or father's) reproductive system. A second, indirect channel is the long-term impact on the parental generation: since the famine-affected first generation tends to have physical and mental challenges which adversely affect schooling and employment, their children are likely to be raised in disadvantaged circumstances that in turn negatively affect their life chances. Little research, however, has actually examined the existence of such effects.

In a recent paper in World Development, "The Lasting Impact of Parental Early Life Malnutrition on Their Offspring: Evidence from the China Great Leap Forward Famine," Seonghoon Kim, Quheng Deng, Belton Fleisher, and Shi Li, document such effects using Chinese census data. They find that children born to parents who were themselves born during the Great Leap Forward (GLF) famine years are significantly less likely to enter junior secondary school than would otherwise have done so. Kim et al. conclude that "the existence of second-generation effects on human capital development imply extended benefits for policies that support the nutrition of pregnant women and infants in any country where nutritional deficiencies remain today."

The implications for North Korea are obvious. Since the end of the famine in 1998, food insecurity among parts of the population has remained chronic. Yet, if the latest FAO-WFP assessment [pdf] is to be believed, the grain deficit, has effectively disappeared: 40,000 metric tons for the current harvest year, a magnitude that could be closed for $10-20 million (under 1 percent of the country's estimated military budget). Rather than absolute scarcity, the ongoing problems appear primarily tied to unequal distribution and poor governance. The research of Kim et al. underscores that the human costs of these failures is probably even larger than we had thought.

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