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28 May 2024

Study maps impact of health shocks on political preferences

Malnutrition before birth or in a child’s early years can have significant and long-terms effects on their health and employment outcomes but does it also shape their political preferences?

hand voting

A new study co-authored by King’s academic, Dr Raluca Pahontu, has found evidence that it does, with those exposed to pre-natal health shocks displaying a preference for left-leaning political parties even decades later.

The findings were revealed in the paper, Insuring Against Hunger? The Long-Term Political Consequences of Exposure to the Dutch Famine, published in the Journal of Historical Political Economy and co-authored by Dr Gerda Hooijer (University College London) and Dr David Rueda (University of Oxford).

Using the Dutch famine of 1944/45 as a case study, in which an estimated people 25,000 died and more than four million were left severely malnourished, the researchers found that in areas where there were more individuals exposed to the famine prenatally, there was greater demand in adulthood for higher social protection, captured through the support for left wing parties.

And the study also found evidence that this long-running preference may have biological causes alongside the potential socialisation effects caused by the impact of the famine on communities.

The researchers said: “Our estimates confirm that a change in the density of individuals exposed in-utero to famine increases support for the left within municipalities. On average, a one standard deviation increase in the proportion of [people exposed to famine] increases support for the left by 0.008 percentage points.

“Perhaps more importantly, these results also suggest not only that malnutrition may have an impact on left support but also that this effect is persistent across time — more than 50 years after exposure.

“By contrast, the effect on left support of the control group - the individuals born at the same time, but in the eastern side of the Netherlands unaffected by the famine - reveals no systematic relationship or a negative one.”

The researchers used municipality-level data from the Dutch Election Council for the study, covering seven national elections over 20 years, as well as data from Statistics Netherlands which captures data on citizens date and place of birth.

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Raluca L. Pahontu

Lecturer in Political Behaviour