Genetic Potential Can Be Stunted By Poverty

bread line Think for a moment about your ancestors. Some of them might have lived their lives in utter poverty, especially if that ancestor was a child during The Great Depression. Other distant relatives might have been financially well taken care of. Why does this matter? It turns out that children who grow up in conditions of poverty may not reach their full genetic potential.

The United States is a rich nation when compared with many of the other countries in the world. This does not mean that there are no poor people here. We have a large number of people who are homeless. Thanks to the recent problems in the economy, there are entire families who have no place to live. We have people who rely on food banks, and food stamps, in order to be able to feed their families. The United States has a very big problem with unemployment right now. If you cannot find a job, you cannot make an income, (unless you are lucky enough to qualify for unemployment benefits). This means that the children of the unemployed are, for the most part, living in conditions of poverty.

In general, children can be cruel to each other. It’s no secret that kids who come from poor families face some social difficulties that children from richer families do not have to face. It can be embarrassing to be the kid that gets free lunch, because your parents can’t afford to feed you. Wearing clothing that is out of style can cause a child to be the last one picked as a partner. This sort of thing has been going on forever, and isn’t news.

What is newsworthy is a recent study done by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin. The researchers looked at 750 sets of twins, and noted the results of cognitive ability tests that the twins were given. The twins were individually asked to preform certain simple tasks, such as putting three cubes into a cup, matching pictures, or pulling on a string in order to cause a bell to ring. The twins were tested when they were ten months old, and then tested again when they were two years old.

The study found that all the kids, no matter what their socioeconomic background, basically performed the same way on these tests when they were ten months old. However, when they were tested at age two, there was significant difference between how well the kids preformed. The two year olds who were from richer families scored noticeably higher on the tests than the two year olds who were from poorer families did.

What does this mean? In short, this study indicates that even though all of these children were born with the genetic potential to be successful at the tasks that life will throw at them, this potential can be stunted by the environment that the child grows up in. It does not suggest anything about the innate intelligence of the children from richer or poorer families, or how “good” or “bad” their parents might be.

Part of what is going on here has to do with opportunity. Kids from richer families have a lot more opportunity presented to them than kids from poorer families. It is the additional experiences that enhance the learning process. This study might make you look back and wonder what your ancestors might have accomplished if they didn’t grow up in conditions of poverty.

Image by Tony the Misfit on Flickr