The economic value of teeth

Looks and height matter for economic outcomes, so why not teeth?

Healthy teeth are a vital and visible component of general well-being, but there is little systematic evidence to demonstrate any impact on the labor market.  In this paper, we examine the effect of oral health on labor market outcomes by exploiting variation in access to fluoridated water during childhood.  The politics surrounding the adoption of water fluoridation by local water districts suggests exposure to fluoride during childhood is exogenous to other factors affecting earnings. We find that children who grew up in communities with fluoridated water earn approximately 3% more as adults than children who did not.  The effect is larger for women than men, and is almost exclusively concentrated amongst those from families of low socioeconomic status.  Of the channels explored, we find that occupational sorting explains 14-23% of the effect, suggesting consumer and employer discrimination are the likely driving factors.

That is by Sherry Glied and Matthew Neidell; here is the paper on-line, note their findings are preliminary not final.  Teeth seem to matter less for rich people because they have later chances to cover up — using money of course — for bad childhood teeth.  The poor apparently remain stuck with their teeth problems.  You might think that childhood exposure to fluoride is just proxying for quality of county and thus county human capital in some way, but the fluoride/earnings correlation seems to hold up even when variables are used to adjust for county quality.  Can you dissent from a paper that writes:

…the anecdotes described above suggest that people who lack teeth may have trouble finding jobs.

I thank a loyal MR reader for the pointer.

Addendum: Here is Caplan (and Blinder) on the economics of teeth.


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