The Effects of Natural Disasters on Birth and School Outcomes of Children in North Carolina
This dissertation consists of three studies exploring the effects of natural disasters in North Carolina on the longer term outcomes of children. The first study looks at the effect of prenatal natural disaster exposure on maternal health behaviors and birth outcomes for twenty cohorts of children born in North Carolina. Combining North Carolina administrative and survey data on births with disaster declarations from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) allows me to identify children who were exposed to disasters in each trimester of prenatal development. Using a county fixed effect strategy, I compare these children to other children born in the same county who were not exposed to disasters while in utero. Results indicate that prenatal natural disaster exposure, especially exposure to hurricanes, has a significant effect on some maternal health behaviors, but this study provides only limited support for the theory that natural disaster exposure negatively affects birth outcomes, as measured by birth weight and gestational age.
The second study looks at the impact of exposure to natural disasters during pregnancy on the educational outcomes of North Carolina children at third grade. A broad literature relates negative birth outcomes to poor educational performance, and a number of recent studies examine the effect of prenatal exposure to natural disasters on birth outcomes. This study takes the next step by considering how prenatal exposure affects later outcomes. The children identified in the first study as exposed to disasters prenatally are compared to other children born in the same county who were not exposed to disasters while in utero. Results suggest that children exposed to hurricanes prenatally have lower scores on third grade standardized tests in math and reading. Those exposed to flooding or tornadoes also have somewhat lower math scores. Additionally, results suggest that these negative effects are more concentrated among children in disadvantaged subgroups, especially children born to Black mothers.
The third study addresses the question of whether the disruption caused by a natural disaster has an impact on student academic outcomes in the school year during which the natural disaster occurs. The effects of disasters on school performance are important because natural disasters often constitute a major community disruption with widespread impacts on the lives of children. The educational data in this study comes from administrative records for all school districts in North Carolina. Results suggest that hurricanes have a negative overall impact on reading test scores, with the effect concentrated among middle schools. However, winter storms have a positive effect on both math and reading scores in middle school. This difference in effect and additional analysis of mechanisms suggests that mobility is more important than missed days of schools in mediating negative effects of hurricanes on school performance.
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