Communication Barriers and Infant Health: Causal Evidence from the Swiss Language Roulette
Language skills constitute an essential prerequisite for social and economic integration of immigrants. We assess a new dimension, that is whether communication barriers can causally transmit socioeconomic disadvantages across generations via health at birth. To address this question we leverage a unique natural experiment in Switzerland where refugees are conditional-randomly allocated across the country's distinct language regions. Switzerland receives a large share of refugees from countries that match these languages. Using administrative data on all refugees entering the country linked to all births that occurred between 2010 and 2017, we find substantial benefits of being allocated to a familiar language environment, already for mothers who arrive during the first trimester of their pregnancy. Contrasting the language match with local networks suggests that recent refugee mothers in the area partly compensate for the burden of being allocated to an unfamiliar language environment. This supports the hypothesis that access to information and general communication barriers are likely drivers of our results. Given the well documented long term effects of poor health at birth, communication skills can have important intergenerational effects that are already measurable at birth.
Daniel Auer is a postdoctoral researcher at the WZB Research Unit Migration, Integration, Transnationalization.
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