Media Briefings

Low Life Expectancy And Low Levels Of Education Trap Many African Countries In Poverty

  • Published Date: April 2008

Low life expectancy, low levels of education and high inequality act together
to trap many countries in poverty, according to new research by Amparo
and Rafael Doménech published in the April 2008 issue of
The Economic Journal.
Investment in public education and health programmes is the way to break out
of this vicious circle, they conclude, and the contribution of aid from rich
countries to finance these programmes may be crucial.
Many poor countries have low levels of life expectancy and low schooling
rates. This study explores the links between these two problems. In particular,
the authors argue that low life expectancy means that parents are less willing
to invest in their children’s education, as children are expected to have a short
working life:
‘Unequal societies have a large share of population in which parents
have no schooling, their children have a lower life expectancy and,
therefore, there are few incentives to invest in education, a situation
that perpetuates one generation after another.’
Life expectancy is determined in part by the educational level of the parents.
This creates a vicious cycle:
• Parents with poor education will give birth to children with low life
• Low life expectancy means that parents won’t invest in their children’s
• When these children grow up and become parents themselves, their
children will have a low life expectancy (as their parents will be poorly
• So children born into poor families will never break out of the low
education, low life expectancy trap into which they are born.
The lower the life expectancy of a child, the less sense it makes for parents to
educate them. Education is costly, not only in terms of fees and uniforms, but
also because while a child is in a classroom they are not helping with
household chores or out working.
It only makes sense for parents to invest in their child’s education if they will
earn enough after they finish school to justify the extra cost. So the benefits of
education fall substantially the shorter the life expectancy of a child: raising
life expectancy is therefore crucial in increasing school enrolment.
The authors use evidence from 92 countries to show that those countries with
more inequality in the distribution of education are the societies that had lower
life expectancy in subsequent years. At the same time, societies with higher
life expectancy are those with greater accumulation rates of human capital.
The division between rich and poor countries in terms of life expectancy is
stark. In 2000, life expectancy was 78 years in rich countries but only 47 years
in sub-Saharan Africa. This gap is increasing due to the growth of AIDS
across Africa.
Likewise, the striking disparities in schooling are also evident. Whereas the
secondary school enrolment rate was almost 100% in rich countries in 2000,
less than 30% of children in sub-Saharan Africa were enrolled in secondary
schooling and entered the labour market as unskilled workers from childhood.
The authors conclude:
‘Governments could bring individuals out of the no-schooling poverty
trap by guaranteeing a minimum compulsory level of education and,
at the same time, investing in health policies that increase life
‘The contribution of external aid to finance public education and
health programmes may be crucial. All of them are measures that
would generate longer average life expectancy, lower inequality and
higher standards of living in the less developed economies.’
Notes for editors: ‘Human Capital Inequality, Life Expectancy and Economic
Growth’ by Amparo Castelló-Climent and Rafael Doménech is published in
the April 2008 issue of The Economic Journal.
The authors are at the University of Valencia.
For further information: contact Amparo Castelló-Climent on +34 963 828
438 (email:; Rafael Doménech on +34 963828219
(email:; or Romesh Vaitilingam on 07768 661095