Children, Youth and Families

Janet M. Currie • Louis J. Donnelly • Sara F. McLanahan • Tom S. Vogl

Janet Currie and Schwandt, H. (Johns Hopkins University) published “The 9/11 Dust Cloud and Pregnancy Outcomes: A Reconsideration,” in The Journal of Human Resources. The events of 9/11 released a million tons of toxic dust into lower Manhattan, an unparalleled environmental disaster. Puzzling to them was that the literature has shown little effect of fetal exposure to the dust. However, inference is complicated by pre-existing differences between the affected mothers and other NYC mothers as well as heterogeneity in effects on boys and girls. Using all births in utero on 9/11 in NYC and comparing them to their siblings, they found that residence in the affected area increased prematurity and low birth weight, especially for boys.

Louis Donnelly’s paper with McLanahan, S., Brooks-Gunn, J., Garfinkel, I. (Columbia University), Wagner, B. (Princeton University; Texas Tech University), Jacobsen, W. (Pennsylvania State University) et al. entitled, “Cohesive Neighborhoods Where Expectations are Shared May Have Positive Impact on Adolescent Mental Health,” was published in Health Affairs. Adolescent mental health problems are associated with poor health and well-being in adulthood. The authors used data from a cohort of 2,264 children born in large U.S. cities in 1998–2000 to examine whether neighborhood collective efficacy (a combination of social cohesion and control) is associated with improvements in adolescent mental health. They found that children who grew up in neighborhoods with high collective efficacy experienced fewer depressive and anxiety symptoms during adolescence than similar children from neighborhoods with low collective efficacy. The magnitude of this neighborhood effect is comparable to the protective effects of depression prevention programs aimed at general or at-risk adolescent populations. Their findings did not vary by family or neighborhood income, which indicates that neighborhood collective efficacy supports adolescent mental health across diverse populations and urban settings. They recommend a greater emphasis on neighborhood environments in individual mental health risk assessments and greater investment in community-based initiatives that strengthen neighborhood social cohesion and control.

Sara McLanahan, Garfinkel, I. (Columbia University), and Wimer, C. (Stanford University) published “Children of the Great Recession, an edited volume that examined the recession’s impact on the economic well-being of families, including parents’ health, relationship stability, and parenting behavior. In one of the chapters, McLanahan, along with Schneider, D. (University of California, Berkeley) and Harknett, K. (University of Pennsylvania), studied how the high levels of unemployment during the Great Recession influenced parental relationships. Using data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study linked with area-level unemployment rates, they found that the recession led to modest declines in two-parent families, and some declines in the supportiveness and overall quality of mother-father relationships. The declines were most pronounced among families with mothers who had less than a college degree.

Tom Vogl, in joint research with Marcos Rangel (Duke University), investigates the health effects of routine pollution sources in agricultural areas of developing countries. The project’s first article, is under review for the Review of Economics and Statistics and is a part of the NBER Working Paper. The authors’ research measures the infant health effects of agricultural field burning, a common and age-old practice.

Fire has long served as a tool in agriculture, but this practice's human capital consequences have proved difficult to study. Drawing on data from satellites, air monitors, and vital records, they study how smoke from sugarcane harvest fires affects infant health in the Brazilian state that produces one-fifth of the world's sugarcane. Because fires track economic activity, they exploit wind for identification, finding that late-pregnancy exposure to upwind fires decreases birth weight, gestational length, and in utero survival, but not early neonatal survival. Other fires positively predict health, highlighting the importance of disentangling pollution from economic activities that drive it.