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Essays on human capital formation

Owen Thompson, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation explores various aspects of human capital formation during childhood and their economic effects throughout the lifecourse. Chapter 1 investigates how the association between cognitive achievement and self-rated health in middle age differs by race, and attempts to explain these differences. Using data from the NLSY, I find that while whites with higher cognitive achievement scores tend to report substantially better general health, this relationship is far weaker or wholly absent among blacks. Further tests suggest that about 35% of this racial difference can be explained by behavioral decisions during adulthood, and that another portion of the disparity may trace back to prenatal and early childhood experiences. The chapter closes by noting that its results are broadly consistent with explanations of the racial health gap that emphasize entrenched forms of racial discrimination. Chapter 2 documents a novel gene-environment interactions by showing that the income-education association varies greatly across groups of children with different versions of a specific gene, monoamine-oxidase A (MAOA), which impacts neurotransmitter activity. For children with one MAOA variant, increases in household income have the expected positive association with education. For children with another variant, who comprise over half of the population, this relationship is much weaker. These results hold when the interactive effects are identified using genetic variation between full biological siblings, which genetic principles assert is as good as randomly assigned. Chapter 3 investigates the role of discrimination, broadly defined, in generating racial differences in home environments. To do so, I study the trends of a widely used index of the home environment (the HOME score) in a sample of mothers who were born between 1957 and 1964, and who therefore grew up in a period of rapidly declining racial discrimination in the US South. The chapter documents that HOME scores increased dramatically across these birth cohorts among Southern African American mothers, but did not increase at all among African Americans outside of the South or among Southern whites. I propose that convergence may have been due to shifts in parenting norms that were engendered by the fundamental social and economic changes occurring in the South over this period.^

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Recommended Citation

Thompson, Owen, "Essays on human capital formation" (2013). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3603164.