cultural preferences and malnutrition

Malnutrition continues to be a serious problem in India. Yale economist David Atkin shows that internal migration contributes to this because migrants have strong cultural preferences for foods of their place of origin, foods that are typically more expensive than local foods in their new place of residence.

This paper sets out to answer a simple question: do food cultures matter in an economic sense, and in particular, can culture constrain caloric intake and contribute to malnutrition? I address this question by exploiting the fact that migrants and non-migrants face the same relative prices, yet possess very different preferences. Drawing on detailed household survey data from India, I find that inter-state migrants consume fewer calories per Rupee of food expenditure compared to their non-migrant neighbors. This caloric tax on migrants corresponds to 1.6 percent of caloric intake and is evident even for households on the edge of malnutrition. I then provide a chain of evidence in support of an explanation based on culture: that migrants make nutritionally-suboptimal food choices due to strong preferences for the favored foods of their origin states. First, I document that migrants bring their origin-state food preferences with them when they migrate and that these preferences are stronger when there are more migrants in the household. Second, I show that the heterogeneity in the size of the migrant caloric tax is related to the suitability and intensity of these origin-state food preferences. The most adversely affected migrants (households in which both husband and wife migrated to a village where their origin-state preferences are unsuited to the local price vector) would consume 7 percent more calories if they possessed the same preferences as their neighbors

David Atkin, “The Caloric Costs of Culture: Evidence from Indian Migrants“, Economic Growth Center Discussion Paper No. 1028, Yale University, June 2013.

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