Essays in Development Economics: Health and Human Capital through the Life Course

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This dissertation presents three essays on topics in development economics. Drawing on rich longitudinal data as well as measures of cognitive skills adapted from cognitive neuroscience, the chapters focus on health and human capital through the life course. The first essay isolates the causal impact of public health insurance on child health, measured by height-for-age, by exploiting the roll-out of Seguro Popular, a large-scale program that provides public health insurance to about half of Mexico’s population. Drawing on insights from the biology of human linear growth and using population-representative longitudinal data, we establish that Seguro Popular has had a modest impact on child nutritional status. These effects were larger after the program had been established for several years, suggesting that supply-side factors may have been critical impediments. The second essay turns to the relationship between executive function and labor market outcomes. This project describes how a widely used measure of executive function with foundations in cognitive neuroscience was implemented as part of a large-scale, population-representative survey in Indonesia. I find that higher cognitive functioning is associated with rewards in the labor market, particularly for women, and that executive function is related to labor force participation and the choice between wage work and self-employment. Motivated by the importance of executive function and human capital in later life, the third essay turns to the relationship between parental executive functioning and child outcomes. I find that parental executive function is strongly related to child executive function, and that better parental executive function is associated with better child nutritional outcomes, as measured by height-for-age and weight-for-height. The relationship between parents’ executive functioning and child outcomes depends both on the gender of the child and whether the child is first born or has older siblings. These results suggest that the relationships I observe between parental executive functioning and child development are not simply genetic but reflect parental choices and behaviors. Together, these chapters demonstrate the importance of bringing the tools from cognitive neuroscience to economics to further examine the role that specific cognitive skills like executive function play for success and well-being. They also highlight the critical importance of the early childhood household and environment for development, with long-lasting consequences for later life.






Turrini, Gina (2018). Essays in Development Economics: Health and Human Capital through the Life Course. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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