NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


May 9, 2008

Do taller people earn more?  According to two recent studies, the tallest quarter of the population earns 9-10 percent more than the shortest quarter.  Height gives adolescents self-confidence and helps them learn valuable social skills, according Nicola Persico and Andrew Postlewaite of the University of Pennsylvania and Dan Silverman of the University of Michigan.  It is also argued that people who grow to their full potential are smarter, on average.  Both brains and build depend on the care and nourishment a child receives, says Anne Case and Christina Paxson of Princeton University.

Height adds to income, income also adds to height:

  • In countries languishing at a real income of $4,000 per head (in 1985 dollars), boys average less than 145cm.
  • In places that are $6,000 a head richer, boys are 4cm taller, according to calculations by Richard Steckel of Ohio State University.
  • Likewise, Angus Deaton of Princeton University reports that Indian men of 20 are about 1cm taller than 40-year olds, partly because the country was substantially richer when they were born.

However, the relationship between dollars and inches is not straightforward:

  • Uganda, for example, is both poorer and taller than India, where almost half of children under five are stunted, according to United Nations figures.
  • Americans born in the 1880s, as the country's industrial revolution gathered pace, were both richer and shorter than their forebears.

What explains these enigmas?  Height rises with prosperity, but at a diminishing rate, says Richard Steckel of Ohio State University.  It traces an arc, not a straight line, as income increases.  Otherwise, Bill Gates would be a giant.  Earning enough to buy plentiful calories and protein makes a big difference to stature.  But once a person has enough money to free himself from thin gruel and hard labor, extra income has less to add.  Stature is a good measure of deprivation but not of opulence, says Steckel writes.

Source: "Feet, Dollars and Inches," The Economist, April 11, 2008.

For text: 

For Persico, Postlewaite and Silverman study: 

For Case and Paxson study: 


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