Presenter: Florencia Torche (Stanford University).

When: Thursday 16th March, 13.30-15.00.

Where: Emeroteca, Badia Fiesolana.

Abstract: Exposure to environmental stressors is highly prevalent and unequally distributed along socioeconomic and ethno-racial lines. While the effects of stress on children and adults are well documented, less is known about the long-term consequences when exposure to stressors occurs before birth. This project combines a natural experiment, a longitudinal survey and in-depth interviews to examine the effect of in-utero exposure to an acute stressor on children’s outcomes. We find that prenatal stress has a negative impact on children’s cognitive outcomes and that this effect is acutely stratified by social class: It is large among poor families but it fully disappears among advantaged families. We then examine potential mechanism explaining stratification: Differential exposure, sensitivity, birth outcomes, and parental responses. Quantitative evidence is inconsistent with the first three mechanisms. In-depth interviews suggest that the stratified effect of prenatal stress may emerge from parental responses. Advantaged families mobilize multiple resources that compensate for the early shock experienced by children. This study indicates that exposures to environmental stressors even before birth may provide a strong, but largely invisible, mechanism for the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage.