Iron deficiency reduces productive capacity in adults and impairs cognitive development in children. In 1943, the United States government issued War Food Order No. 1, which required the fortification of bread with iron to reduce iron deficiency in the working age population during World War II. This universal fortification of grain products increased per capita consumption of iron by 16 percent. I use the exogenous timing of the federal law and cross-place variation in dietary iron consumption before the order to measure the economic impact of the fortification program. Areas with lower levels of iron consumption prior to the mandate experienced greater increases in income and school enrollment between 1940 and 1950. Despite rising incomes over the 20th century, iron consumption gradually declined. Without the fortification program iron deficiency rates would have remained high, reducing adult incomes. A long-term follow up suggests adults in 1970 with more exposure to fortification during childhood earned higher wages, had more years of schooling, and were less likely to live in poverty. The timing of the change in iron consumption allows me to isolate the impact of a single nutrient rather than the impact of a severe general nutritional deprivation commonly found in studies of “developmental origins.”
Recommended citation: Niemesh, Gregory. (2015). “Ironing Out Deficiencies: Evidence from the United States on the Economic Effects Iron Deficiency.” The Journal of Human Resources. 50(4):910-958.