Social Security as Viewed through Micro-data

Part 8: Childhood Circumstances

Consulting Fellow, RIETI

Disparities among individuals in economic status (income and assets), health conditions, and cognitive abilities become more pronounced as people enter their middle years and beyond. Recent research has found statistical evidence showing that the environments in which individuals spent their early childhood have a substantial impact on their later lives.

The Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE), a panel survey of middle-aged and elderly individuals across continental European countries, developed a simple interview method to obtain individuals' life histories. It is designed in such a way to collect information concerning the early childhood environments in which the interviewees were raised and major incidents that occurred during those years. Specifically, types of data collected include: information on the respondents' childhood living environments such as the number of rooms per family member, number of books (other than newspapers, magazines, and textbooks) owned, and breadwinner's occupation as of when the respondents were 10 years old; information on the respondents' childhood school performance in language arts and mathematics relative to the average for their peers; and information on childhood health such as experience of long-term hospitalization and/or hunger and the number of diseases the respondents suffered.

Many recent studies have shown not only that these various aspects of individuals' childhood environments have a linkage to the economic status, health conditions, and cognitive abilities in their middle and elderly years, but also that the degree of influence differs across countries. Furthermore, it has been pointed out that disparities among individuals may be passed down through generations as each person's early childhood environment depends very much on his or her parents.

A series of panel surveys of middle-aged and elderly people are being conducted in various parts of the world in a vigorous effort to collect internationally comparable data and thereby examine the impact of childhood experiences and environments on overall life in the middle and elderly years. The Japanese Study of Aging and Retirement (JSTAR) survey is also designed in such a way that it is possible to analyze how individuals' lives in their middle and elderly years are influenced by the attributes of their parents and/or the environments in which they lived at the age of 15 years.

Although people are vaguely aware that their lives in adulthood are influenced by their early childhood environments, several points need to be kept in mind. First, it is necessary to identify causal relationships. Although statistically significant correlations have been found between the way in which individuals spent their childhood—living environments and health conditions—and the state of their lives in their middle and elderly ages, it is extremely difficult to identify how, i.e., through what channel and to what extent, early childhood factors affect adulthood.

Second, we must consider policy implications. If the impact of early childhood environments is significant, little room is left for policy interventions to change the lives of those who are already in their middle and elderly years. Some recent studies even suggest that the maternal environment in which a mother spends her pregnancy impacts the amount of lifetime income of the child to be born. In the first place, there is the question of whether the government can possibly intervene in people's early childhood environments. And even if it can, any effect of such interventions would be felt only in the remote future.

Third, there is the question of how early childhood environments and health conditions should be measured. Those who are privileged (or underprivileged) in their middle and elderly years may want to say that was the case ever since their early childhood. In this respect, Japan may be able to contribute its knowledge to the rest of the world by utilizing information recorded in maternal and child health handbooks, such as the child's height and weight at birth.

>> Original text in Japanese

* Translated by RIETI from the original Japanese "Yasashii Keizaigaku" column in the September 21, 2011 issue of Nihon Keizai Shimbun.

September 21, 2011