Obesity’s economic consequences in adults, kids

Susan L. Averett talked about obesity. (Tom O’Dell / Photo Assistant)
Susan L. Averett talked about obesity. (Tom O’Dell / Photo Assistant)

Susan L. Averett, professor of economics at Lafayette College spoke on Nov. 11, discussing adult and childhood obesity and its physical and economic consequences.

“Being obese itself is not a health problem, but it is correlated with these other health problems,” Averett said. In a paper published in the Journal of Human Resources in 1996, Averett and economist Sanders Korenman studied the effects of obesity on earned wages.

“We worked really hard to find the causal effect of obesity on wages,” Averett said. The article, titled, “The Economic Reality of the Beauty Myth,” cited data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.

Averett and Korenman were looking to see if a person was overweight because of his or her low income or if a person earned a lower income because he or she was overweight.

They used a temporal ordering of the data set. By doing this, they could use an earlier measure of BMI, which is less likely to be tainted by reverse causality, though Averett admitted that no system is perfect.

Two-thirds of adults in the United States are either obese or overweight. According to Averett, Body Mass Index (BMI) of 25-30 constitutes being overweight, while a BMI of over 30 is considered obese. BMI is calculated by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by his or her height squared, in meters.

“Given that obesity rates have continued to climb for a number of years, and are particularly high for younger individuals, I feel it is important for our generation to understand both the personal lifestyle as well as financial issues that accompany obesity,” said Brad Van Arnum, junior economics major and president of the economics club, who hosted the event.

In Averett’s studies, she found that overweight women were less likely to marry, their spouses earned a lower wage, and they earned about 15 percent less than their skinnier counterparts. There were significantly less discrepancies between overweight or obese men and their average weight counterparts. Wages differed only seven percent. Men don’t get penalized for being heavier like women, Averett said.

“Personal health extends beyond individuals,” said Lauren Rittenbach, a sophomore economics major. “She shed a new light on finding the causes of obesity and how the effects differ amongst men and women and whites and blacks. If one wishes to improve general health and wellness, an economic analysis on the causalities will help you to identify outlying problems, rather than merely declaring obesity as an individual life choice.”

The other part of Averett’s presentation was about childhood obesity. This year, she has published two papers on the topic, “Childhood Overweight in the U.S.: A Quantitive Regression Approach” and “Race and Gender Differences in the Cognitive Effects of Childhood Overweight.”

Averett found race played a large part in childhood obesity. “A lot of the action for kids really varies by race,” she said.

African-American girls were the most overweight group between 1984 and 1996.

Mothers with a higher education had fewer occurrences of underweight daughters, but their education didn’t make a difference if their daughters were overweight.

Higher education for the mothers of boys tended to make the boys lighter, especially in white males.

Averett also studied the correlation between fast food prices and BMI in children. She found that as fast food prices decreased, the average BMI of children increased.

The hospital costs associated with childhood obesity were estimated at $127 million between 1997 and 1999, as measured in 2001 U.S. dollars. This was up from $39 million between 1979 and 1981.

“The analysis was impressive and I think the economic costs of obesity are really important to talk about, especially with health care costs being debated,” said Mike Zane, senior economics major and secretary of the economics club.