Economic historians have hypothesized that as people become healthier they generate more affluence. Able to work harder, a more robust household can propel subsequent generations and national income upward.
As a result, when little information was available about GDP, economists used health data to form conclusions about economic growth. But then we need to ask where to access health information from centuries past? One source is height records. If a cohort is taller, then it must be healthier and better health could mean a more productive population. Yes?
Where are we going? To understanding why Indian economic growth and height might not correlate.
Height and GDP
In the following graph, it makes sense that Ethiopia is low for GDP and height. Or that Namibia is high for both. But then why is India, a relatively affluent developing nation, low for height?
Son preference might provide an answer.
From 1992 to 2005, at more than six percent annually, India’s growth rate was higher than approximately 100 other countries. And yet 40 percent of India’s under age 5 population was unusually short (stunted)– more than poorer countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
Wondering why, one group of researchers concluded the answer related to son preference. In India’s Hindu population, eldest sons inherit wealth, they live with their parents and they perform traditional funeral ceremonies. Highly valued, the eldest son receives a disproportionately large share of the family’s resources.
So, when a daughter is born first, the parents try again for a son. Hoping to guarantee his health, the pregnant mom gets better nutrition while her daughter gets less. But let’s say again they have a daughter. Still hoping for that son, the household allocates resources to the pregnant mom.
Below, you can see the pattern. Female children, especially when born first, are shorter than the world’s averages.
To confirm their hypothesis, the study’s authors looked at the matrilineal communities in the Kerala region and at Indian Muslims. Finding no evidence of the same birth order stunting pattern in non-Hindu groups nor from other environmental and health related variables, they retained their son preference theory.
Our Bottom Line: Economic Growth
In The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, Harvard professor David Landes tells us that physical capital that includes tools and machines, and human capital which involves education, entrepreneurship, and health, are most crucial for economic growth. With health but one of several variables, you can see that India’s growth engine gets more fuel elsewhere.