Thursday, February 16, 2012

Are Retrospective Data on Childhood Conditions Reliable?

It is becoming increasingly clear that early environment plays a key role in both human capital ( and health outcomes ( in later life. Measuring childhood circumstance contemporaneously would require us to wait until we reach the outcome of interest; in the case of something like retirement this might take a while. One alternative would be to survey people and the time of interest and link to official records or macro level data on early life conditions. Another would be to ask individuals to recall events from their childhood, an approach adopted in both SHARE and the HRS. Clearly there are potential concerns about recall, however the article below provides a basis for believing that the data are credible in the US case, and now a new working paper has examined this issue for SHARE.

Smith, J. (2009). "Reconstructing childhood health histories." Demography 46(2): 387-403.


This article provides evidence about the quality of retrospective childhood health histories given to respondents in the Health and Retirement Survey (HRS) and the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID). Even though information on early life health events is critical, there is legitimate skepticism about the ability of older respondents to remember specific health problems that they had during childhood. The evidence presented in this article suggests that this view is too negative. Respondents appear to remember salient childhood events about themselves, such as the illnesses they had during childhood, quite well. Moreover, these physical and psychological childhood health events are important correlates of adult health during middle age.


Enkelejda Havari and Fabrizio Mazzonna

Working Paper Series 05-2011

This study provides evidence about the quality of retrospective assessments of individuals aged 50+ regarding their childhood histories in 3rd wave of the Survey of Health Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE). Early life events are important to social scientists in predicting individuals’ outcomes in adulthood. Nevertheless, there is wide skepticism about the ability of old age respondents to recall with good accuracy events which happened decades ago. We assess the internal and external consistency of some measures of childhood health and socio-economic status and find that overall respondents seem to remember well their health status and living conditions between ages 0-15. Thanks to the cross-country dimension of SHARE (13 European countries), we are able to compare individual responses with aggregate data (e.g. GDP per capita) at country level. The results we find should mitigate doubts on retrospective data collection and promote their use for research purposes.

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