How important is parental education for child nutrition?

Harold Alderman, Derek D. Headey
world development

Existing evidence on the impacts of parental education on child nutrition is plagued by both internal and external validity concerns. In this paper we try to address these concerns through a novel econometric analysis of 376,992 preschool children from 56 developing countries. We compare a naïve least square model to specifications that include cluster fixed effects and cohort-based educational rankings to reduce biases from omitted variables before gauging sensitivity to sub-samples and exploring potential explanations of education-nutrition linkages. We find that the estimated nutritional returns to parental education are: (a) substantially reduced in models that include fixed effects and cohort rankings; (b) larger for mothers than for fathers; (c) generally increasing, and minimal for primary education; (d) increasing with household wealth; (e) larger in countries/regions with higher burdens of undernutrition; (f) larger in countries/regions with higher schooling quality; and (g) highly variable across country sub-samples. These results imply substantial uncertainty and variability in the returns to education, but results from the more stringent models imply that even the achievement of very ambitious education targets would only lead to modest reductions in stunting rates in high-burden countries. We speculate that education might have more impact on the nutritional status of the next generation if school curricula focused on directly improving health and nutritional knowledge of future parents.