Prenatal Transfers and Infant Health: Evidence from Spain

Abstract

We estimate the impact of a cash transfer targeting new mothers on their subsequent children’s health outcomes at birth. We exploit the unexpected introduction of a generous, universal child benefit in Spain in 2007. Using population-wide, individual-level, high-quality administrative data from birth records and a regression discontinuity approach, we find that women who received the benefit were much less likely to have low-birth-weight children in the future (while their subsequent fertility was unaffected). The overall effect is driven by poor women, unmarried women, and women with low education, and by births taking place relatively soon after the benefit receipt. The €2,500 transfer led to a 0.7 percentage-point decline in the fraction of children born under 1,500 grams in poorer households in the following five years, an 83% reduction. We explore the underlying channels, and find evidence supporting faster intrauterine growth, possibly driven by better maternal health, nutrition, and behaviors. Gestation length, family structure, and maternal employment do not seem to play a role. Recent research suggests that targeting pregnant women may be more effective than later interventions (such as cash transfers to families with children), given the strong persistence of fetal health effects. Our results suggest that the impact may be stronger if women are targeted even earlier, before conception.