Unequal Trajectories: Prenatal Exposures, Stratification, and Children’s Outcomes
Stress 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 of stress exposure when it occurs before birth. This project combines a natural experiment, an original longitudinal dataset, and in-depth interviews to examine the effect of in-utero exposure to acute stress on children’s outcomes. Prenatal stress has a negative impact on children’s cognitive outcomes, and this effect is acutely stratified by social class: It is large among poor families but it fully disappears among advantaged families. Socioeconomic stratification of the stress effect is not driven by higher exposure or higher sensitivity to stress among poor families, nor is it driven by a stratified effect of stress on birth outcomes. Rather, in-depth interviews suggest that the stratified effect of prenatal stress emerges from parental responses. Advantaged families mobilize multiple resources that compensate for the early shock experienced by children.