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In the Red

UVA studies explore money and what happens when there isn’t enough of it

Making ends meet

A quarter of Virginia households don’t have enough money to cover basic needs. A report from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at UVA reveals that a family of four needs about $44,000 a year—twice the federal poverty level of $22,050—to cover expenses. The biggest expenses for these families? Housing and childcare. The report also shows how living expenses vary within the state; in Northern Virginia costs are higher and a family of four needs $64,200 to keep their heads above water. “Many Virginians earn incomes above the poverty line but still struggle to make ends meet,” says researcher Rebecca M. Tippett. “It is important to identify risks to economic security because economically secure families help build healthy communities: They can pay their taxes; they can feed their children; and they are more productive workers.”

Without a net

Nearly 70 percent of single parents with children at home do not have life insurance, according to a study led by Darden professor Gregory B. Fairchild. Forty-five percent of married parents are uninsured. “We find that many single parents are simply too busy, or even too scared, to properly evaluate their life insurance needs,” Fairchild says in a report. “This is an understandable fear because the first level of financial safety—the other parent—isn’t there.”

Nature vs. nurture

A study of 750 sets of twins suggests that children’s genetic potential for intelligence develops better in richer families. Researchers, including UVA psychologists Eric Turkheimer and David Fask, measured the early cognitive abilities of twins in both rich and poor families using tasks such as pulling a string to ring a bell and matching pictures.

Among 2-year-olds from wealthier families, identical twins—who share identical DNA—performed similarly to one another, but fraternal twins—who are only as genetically similar as siblings—performed differently from each other, which suggests their different genetic makeups influenced their intelligence. Both kinds of twins from poorer families performed similarly to each other—it didn’t matter if they were identical or fraternal. The similar performances suggest that genetics plays little role in intellectual development among these children. Instead, environment seemed to determine their intellectual capacity. “It shows that two things can be true at the same time: Genes can have a role in human intelligence, but it is still important to alleviate the effects of poverty on children,” says Turkheimer. 

Hard times, good health

There is an upside to an economic downturn, according to Christopher J. Ruhm, a professor of public policy and economics at UVA. His research shows that people get healthier during economic recessions. There is less pollution due to less industrial activity. People smoke, drink and eat out less because they have less money. And they sleep and exercise more because they spend fewer hours at work. “The overall effect is pronounced,” Ruhm says. “There are lots of not fully understood, indirect effects that are quite interesting.” Ruhm has also found that during a downturn there is a decrease in mortality rates, there are fewer fatal car accidents and a reduction in deaths from disease—including cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death in the U.S.