Where You Are Born Matters, But You Can't Choose That

July 14, 2015 by Nick Rawson


My first memory is when I was three-years-old, and my dad told me I was going to have a younger brother.  So there are three years that it is well documented that I was alive (primarily with baby pictures) that I have no recollection of.  Extending that out, I also have zero recollection of anything before I was born.  This is a patently obvious statement, and another patently obvious statement that follows is that a person has no choice about the situation they are born into.  

It seems there are two options, either a person is randomly plopped into a situation at birth or is predetermined to be exactly the person they are.  To decide which is true would involve a large amount of philosophy and theology, and even then I doubt you would discover a definitive answer.  I am neither a philosopher nor a theologian but what is clear to me is that people themselves cannot choose where or to whom they are born.  If they could, I assume the number of people born into situations with swimming pools and water slides would be astronomically high.  Instead, it comes down to the lottery of their birth.

With this in mind I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the evidence of early childhood’s lasting ramifications and how circumstances we have little to no control over affecting us so considerably.  I’ll primarily look at factors that are subtle or taken for granted, but first I wanted to point out some child mortality rates in different countries, as the difference between life and death is the ultimate inequality.

The mortality rate of a newborn child in the West African country of Sierra Leon is 16.1%.  When that is compared with the 0.2% (that’s 2 out of 1000, not 2 out of 100) rate of the European country Luxembourg, the difference is stark. (Source)  These two countries are roughly 3,000 miles apart, which when the distance between Seattle, Washington and Miami, Florida is about 2,700 miles does not seem that far. The location of their birth matters immensely to these children.  Let’s take a quick look at some other aspects it’s reasonable to assume children have little control over.

  • Education Rates.  The benefits of education are well documented.  In the United States, lifetime earning differences between people with college degrees and those with only high school degrees is routinely in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. (Source)  The decision to attend college in the United States is often one the student is allowed to make, whereas in countries such as Liberia where the primary school attendance rate is at 34%, students do not typically have a choice whether they will attend school or not.  It has been shown that each additional year of schooling in similar situations raises wages about 8%. (Source)

  • Malnutrition.  At a micro level, the amount of food children eats is up to them.  Perhaps they are picky eaters and prefer peas to corn.  At a macro level, however, children can only eat the food that is put in front of them by their caregivers, and malnutrition is primarily due to a lack of nutrients. Unfortunately infant malnutrition leads to decreased IQ scores, decreased school attendance, and a greater risk of coronary disease. (Source) (Source)

  • Words Heard.  A pair of researchers from the University of Kansas conducted a study on the number of words heard by American children prior to age four.  On average children from professional families heard 2,153 words per hour while children from welfare recipient families heard 616 words per hour.  That adds up to a 32 million word difference over the four-year period. (Source)  It’s fair to say that young children do not have control over the number of words spoken to them.  Unfortunately, those words have a dramatic impact on future language skills as children who heard fewer words consistently tested worse in the third grade. (Source)

There is one other study I would like to highlight concerning the profound importance childhood environment can have on a child’s life.  In 1949, shortly after the creation of the Israeli state, 50,000 Jews from the country of Yemen were transported to Israel to help populate the country.  The Yemenite people were distributed randomly around the country to both urban and rural areas, and places with good infrastructure and no infrastructure.  Researchers found that children who were placed in urban areas with good infrastructure were more likely to be higher educated, marry later in life, and have fewer children. (Source) These children were similar when they were transported from Yemen, but their lives were impacted in ways that are keenly recognizable 60 years later simply by the environment they were placed in.

Ultimately I don’t have any sweeping points to make with this post other than to say that the early part of life affects a person monumentally.  That environment plays such a large role, and people have no choice in the environment they are placed is an unfortunate reality.  It does seem, however, that placing a person in a better environment can have a great impact on the outcomes of that person’s life.

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Topics: Biblical Justice

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