The Effects of Negative Economic Shocks at Birth on Adolescents’ Cognitive Health and Educational Attainment in Malawi

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We provide new evidence of the effects of moderate negative economic shocks in utero or shortly after birth on adolescents’ cognitive outcomes and educational attainment in Malawi. This is the first study in a sub-Saharan African (SSA) low-income country (LIC) to analyze the effect of not one, but multiple moderate negative economic shocks. This focus is important as multiple economic shocks in early life are more representative of the experiences of adolescents in LICs. Combining data on adolescents aged 10-16 from the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) project of the Malawi Longitudinal Study on Families and Health (MLSFH) (N = 1, 559), we use linear and probit regression models to show that girls whose households experienced two or more economic shocks in their year of birth have lower cognitive skills as measured by working memory, reading, and mathematical skills. Girls also have lower educational attainment, conditional on age. These effects are very gendered, and we do not observe similar effects among boys. Overall, our results point to lasting effects of early-life adversity on adolescents, and they highlight that, even in a LIC context where early-life adversity is common, policymakers need to intervene early to alleviate the long-term educational impacts of in utero or early life shocks among girls.