Research Highlights from President Paxson

March 2nd, 2012

Christina Paxson is a leading economics scholar whose subjects have ranged widely—from the health effects of poverty to the psychological impact of Hurricane Katrina to whether tall people are smarter than short ones.

In a May 2000 paper entitled "Mothers and Others: Who Invests in Children’s Health?", Paxson and her frequent collaborator, Princeton economist Anne Case, looked at the impact of family structure on children’s health. They  found that children with stepmothers were significantly less likely to have routine doctor and dentist visits or have a place for usual medical care. The kids were also less likely to wear seatbelts when riding in the car. “It appears that stepmothers are not substitutes for birth mothers” when it comes to taking care of the children’s health, the paper concluded.

Paxson’s work on AIDS has looked at the impact of the HIV pandemic on health services in sub-Saharan Africa. She and Case found that prenatal care birth deliveries both dropped in quality as the rates of AIDS rose in a particular country. “We find that erosion of health services is highly correlated with increases in AIDS prevalence,” the authors wrote. “Regions of countries that have light AIDS burdens have witnessed small or no declines in health care.”

In 2006, Paxson and Case debunked the myth that tall adults earn more than short adults because of self-esteem issues or discrimination. Instead, they offered “a simpler explanation: On average, taller people earn more because they are smarter.” Their research showed that tall kids started outperforming short ones on cognitive tests as early as age three. These tall kids remained tall as adults and wound up landing  higher paying jobs requiring more advanced math and verbal skills.

The finding doesn’t necessarily mean tall people are born smarter than short ones. It also suggested that tall children spend their early years in wealthier families, where they grow up well nourished and comparatively healthy. As a New York Times article on the research put it, “All other things being equal, people who reach their growth potential in height, whether taller or smaller than average, are likelier to be smarter than those who don’t, probably because they benefited from optimal early development. “

Most recently, Paxson published research documenting that survivors of Hurricane Katrina struggled with poor mental health for a surprisingly long period of time after the storm hit New Orleans in 2005.

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March/April 2012