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WES 2022: Sonia Bhalotra on the role of infant health in education and earnings

As part of the 21st annual Warwick Economics Summit, Sonia Bhalotra delivered a riveting keynote address to our virtual audience on 5th February, 2022.

Below, you will find our official Summit Press Release for the event, which summarises the speech's highlights, and is accompanied by a collection of the very best quotes from Sonia Bhalotra at WES 2022.



Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick, and global expert in the areas of early childhood development and skill creation, Prof. Sonia Bhalotra, addressed the student-run Warwick Economics Summit on 6th February - the final day of its 2022 edition. She spoke at length about her landmark research into "the long-run impacts of investing in infant health on future outcomes - including school performance, earnings, and life expectancy".

This 2016 research offered the first large-scale evidence that "infection and diet in childhood can contribute causally to chronic disease," and also that "if you expand the welfare state, as many poorer countries are now doing, this will increase the demand for women in skilled positions". These seminal conclusions stem from Prof. Bhalotra's investigations into Swedish universal, fee-free healthcare policy in the 1930s - experimental policy which pioneered the western welfare state, and which saw the appointment of additional clinics and trained nurses to offer information, support and monitoring to new mothers. Prof. Bhalotra's research ultimately found that better infant health outcomes raised primary school performance across both genders, and specifically raised the number of girls in the highest grade percentiles, and ultimately raised both the admission rate of girls into competitive secondary schools, and the number of women who went on to earn in the highest income percentiles.

Crucially, this improvement in the educational and labour market outcomes for women, as a result of a simple infant health intervention, was made possible through a receptive labour market - where the expansion of the welfare state increased the demand for female-focused jobs like teaching and midwifery - and the institutional constraint of limited secondary school provision. Thus, Prof. Bhalotra argued that, "if we did intervene in early childhood, we should also think about building the institutions to enable skill development, and creating the demand for those skills". This research build on Prof. Bhalotra's extensive background in the impact of early childhood health policies, serving to endorse Nobel Prize winner James Heckman's famous thesis there there are higher returns to (policy) investments earlier than later in life.

Moreover, in a lively Q&A discussion with the audience, Prof. Bhalotra went on to emphasise several key points. First, the adverse impact of Covid-19 on adolescent mental health and educational attainment should not be ignored. Second, universalising existing interventions in infant healthcare is crucial, even in well-endowed countries like the UK. And finally, the conclusions of Prof. Bhalotra's research indicates that low-cost infant health interventions can be easily implemented by low and middle income countries, in order not only to raise health but also educational and labour market outcomes.



  • "Why do returns to early investments exceed returns to later interventions? There are two main reasons. There's greater developmental plasticity in the early years of life. So the child, the individual, is still developing, and there's more room for response in terms of metabolic and endocrine processes. The other reason, which continues across the life course, is that investment tends to beget investment. In order words, there is a dynamic in self-productivity. (...) And, of course, the earlier you start, the greater the scope for this cumulative effect."

  • "Around 2.2 billion people globally don't have access to safe water, and only 20% of children who need antibiotics access them. Why is there this policy failure? (...) Policymakers do not recognise the long-term damage that early life infectious disease exposure has on survivors. So, there are these people who survive death in infancy, and they go on to be scarred by infection in their early childhood - and that scarring manifests in lower educational attainment, and lower earnings."

  • "The implication of the causal link, running from infections in early childhood to chronic disease risk in adulthood, is that it's much less expensive to put in place simple preventive care after birth than it is to have expensive treatments for chronic disease."

  • "This low-cost intervention, delivered by lightly trained nurses, that are available in large numbers in poor countries - you just need to train people to deliver information, for example, on breastfeeding and diet (...) - transformed the lives of post-intervention cohorts, and contributed in broad terms to longevity and economic growth decades later."

  • "We illuminate the mechanisms linking infant health to earnings, and we argue that there are potentially large effects - as evidence by the women - but they do depend on institutional capacity and market demand. And so, if we did intervene in early childhood, we should also think about building the institutions to enable skill development, and creating the demand for those skills."

  • "An important impact that the pandemic has had on young people, and especially teenagers, is to challenge their mental health. And we know that mental health is very bad for wellbeing and relationships and so on, but it's also bad for school performance, and can set you back. So, it's very important to recognise that there are mental health impacts of the pandemic, but also that treating mental health does work."

  • "In a country as well-endowed as Britain, we should be able to afford a universal program that supports women through that early [motherhood] period, because it has all these spinoff benefits for the child."


Press release written by Ingrid Bahnemann


You will find the video recording of Sonia Bhalotra's full talk, delivered at WES 2022, here:



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We are also able to provide full event transcripts, or bespoke collections of quotes from Sonia Bhalotra's (or any other WES 2022) talk upon request.

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