Photo Credit: Angie Hill
by Meghan Rosen
Last year, while doing our taxes, my husband and I were surprised to discover that we weren’t as poor as we thought we were. As lowly graduate students making a combined income of about $50,000 per year, I had assumed we were on the penny-pinching side of the national pay scale. But when I compared our income to the median income in the country, I found that we were sitting comfortably in the center. We had made it; we were officially smack-dab in the middle class. I thought it would feel different.
In the United States, nearly 25% of the population makes less than $25,000 per year. At this bottom level, a few households squeak by the poverty threshold, but just barely: in 2010 it’s estimated at just $22,314 for a family of four.
This year, 16 million children will be born into poverty (1 out of every 5 children born in the US). The lives of these children often follow a common stagnant storyline: poor nutrition, delayed mental and emotional development, academic deterioration, criminal activity, and frequently, early parenthood. As young parents, they are more likely to be unwed, more likely to drop out of high school, and more likely to stay impoverished. The cycle is vicious, and unrelenting. But is it possible to escape? How early is the influence of our environment engraved into the patterns of our development?
In 2003, a study from the University of Virginia showed that 7 year-old fraternal twins raised in families with low socioeconomic status had almost no variability in IQ. Why is this surprising? Fraternal twins are as genetically dissimilar as any other pair of non-twin siblings—their IQs should have been different.
Unlike identical twins, which come from the same blend of a single sperm and a single egg’s DNA, and have matching sets of genes, fraternal twins are completely unique. Two eggs and two sperm form two separate embryos: two genetically distinct individuals that share only their time and space together in the womb. The height, build, athletic ability, and IQ of one fraternal twin can be as different from the second as any of their other brothers or sisters. In fact, differences between fraternal twins are not only common; they are expected.
Why then, were these differences not reflected in the mental abilities of the 7-year olds? Is it possible that variation in IQ doesn’t occur until later in childhood? Or did their low socioeconomic environments somehow mask their inherent genetic potential?