Document Type

Working Paper

Publication Date



JEL No. O47, I15, O11: Empirical Studies of Economic Growth • Aggregate Productivity • Cross-Country Output Convergence, Health and Economic Development, Macroeconomic Analyses of Economic Development


A burgeoning literature has found that early childhood health conditions of individuals have large causal effects on their cognitive development, education and earnings. How much does early cognitive development contribute to the national economy? Although researchers have long studied the role of worker health for economic growth, they have not assessed the role of early cognitive development.

Cognitive ability is the foundation of human capital, affecting both educational attainment and economic growth. The risk factors for poor cognitive development are very high in many countries. Each risk factor also causes child mortality, making child survival a viable proxy for good cognitive development conditions. The cognitive development of current workers happened decades earlier when they were children, providing a predetermined correlate. Controlling for country characteristics, income levels and worker health among other variables, child survival from a generation ago is one of the strongest correlates of economic growth in both low and high income countries. Unusually clear causal microeconomic evidence together with a strong correlation with economic growth suggests that early cognitive development plays a significant role in economic development, in addition to being a determinant of life-long wellbeing.


Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Economic development, Poverty, Cognition disorders in children

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Economics Commons