Poverty and Public Education

Child Poverty in the United States

Citizens of the United States continue to be willing to live with the highest child poverty rate of any industrialized nation.  According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, over 16 million children in the United States, 22 percent of all American children, live in poverty.[i]

Defining extreme poverty as half or less of the federally defined poverty level of $22,350 for a family of four, the Southern Education Foundation documents that in 2008, 5.7 million children lived in extreme poverty in the United States, with 42 percent living in the South.  However 9 percent of children in New York, Ohio, Arizona, and Michigan lived in extreme poverty, with more than 8 percent living in destitution in Missouri and Indiana.  One of every five children in the Bronx lived at less than 50 percent of the federal poverty level.[ii]

Today a majority of the South’s public school students are low income…. A large, growing number of children live in destitute, often desperate conditions across the country—girls and boys under the age of 18 whose families and households have incomes below 50 percent of the national poverty threshold.  These children include the homeless and a much larger number of children in transitory or fragile households where each person survives on less than seven or eight dollars a day.[iii] 

In a 20 year longitudinal study, the Consortium on Chicago School Research has identified 46 “truly disadvantaged” public schools in the city of Chicago.  These schools are far poorer than the norm in a city where many public schools serve a relatively large number of children living in impoverished circumstances.  The 46 “truly disadvantaged” schools serve families and neighborhoods where the median family income is $9,480. These schools are racially segregated, each serving 99 percent African American children. The schools serve on average 96 percent poor children, with virtually no middle class children present.[iv]  The report notes that 25 percent of children in foster care in Chicago are concentrated within 27 elementary schools representing only 5 percent of the system.[v]  The authors document that, “In the average Chicago public school, about 15 percent of students had been substantiated by the Department of Children and Family Services as being abused or neglected, either currently or during some earlier point in their elementary career.  In the truly disadvantaged schools, this number swells to almost 25 percent of the students enrolled.  This means that in a typical classroom of 30… a teacher might be expected to engage 7 or 8 such students every year.”[vi] The Chicago researchers explain:

…the job of school improvement appears especially demanding in truly disadvantaged urban communities where collective efficacy and church participation may be relatively low, residents have few social contacts outside their neighborhood, and crime rates are high.  It can be equally demanding in schools with relatively high proportions of students living under exceptional circumstances, where the collective human need can easily overwhelm even the strongest of spirits and the best of intentions.  Under these extreme conditions, sustaining the necessary efforts to push a school forward on a positive trajectory of change may prove daunting indeed.[vii]

U.S. Federal Education Policy Fails to Acknowledge Our Responsibility to Address Child Poverty As a Primary Educational Strategy

For ten years the federal government’s strategy for turning around struggling public schools, many of which are located in areas of highly concentrated family poverty, has been to test students and demand that schools and teachers raise scores despite the challenges children face. This philosophy that defines the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act and the 2009 competitive Race to the Top Program that rewards so-called successful schools and punishes so-called failures has said, “Expect more and cease using poverty as an excuse.”  Research continues to show that this strategy has not worked; achievement gaps have not narrowed and achievement scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have not grown dramatically for any group of students. In contrast, the Southern Education Foundation describes the overwhelming challenges for the schools that serve large concentrations of children living in poverty and especially in extreme poverty:

The problems of extreme poverty among children go far beyond education, but schools and school districts with large concentrations of extremely poor children face enormous challenges in providing these children with real opportunities to learn.  These schools are often the first responders to these children’s needs.[viii]

Research confirms that while poor children can surely learn, they need lots of extra help and support to make that happen. Here are some of the conditions that must be addressed if our society is to help these children and their schools.

  • Children in the poorest communities move frequently, changing schools because of family moves from apartment to apartment or in and out of shelters. Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein writes: “The growing unaffordability of adequate housing also affects achievement.  Urban rents have risen faster than working class incomes; low-income families are more likely to move when they fall behind in rent payments.  In some urban schools, this boosts mobility rates to over 100 percent.” [ix]
  • In very high-needs communities many children miss too much school.  They may be absent because they care for siblings or physically or emotionally ill parents, or because of fear of neighborhood violence. The New York City Schools have been attempting to address chronic absenteeism since the New School Center for New York City Affairs reported in 2008 that in 12 of New York City’s 32 school districts more than 25 percent of elementary school children missed more than 10 percent of the school year, while in 123 individual elementary schools 30 percent of the children were chronically absent.  “Strong research has found that chronic absenteeism among primary school children is often associated with poverty, teenage motherhood, single motherhood, low maternal education, welfare, maternal unemployment, food insecurity, poor maternal health, and multiple siblings.”  Absenteeism rose significantly when families had three or more risk factors.[x]
  • Children who are hungry, whose teeth ache, who suffer from asthma, whose earaches are untreated or whose vision deficiencies are undiagnosed and untreated bring special challenges to school. Harvard Graduate School of Education lecturer, Richard Weissbourd describes the “quiet” and often unnoticed challenges to academic success faced by low-income children: “What exactly are these quiet problems?… The range… is vast.  Hunger, dehydration, asthma, obesity, and hearing problems can all insidiously trip children up in school.  Some quiet problems are psychological—depression, anxiety, the fear of utter destitution… In one school outside Boston, a teacher told me that two brothers were coming to school on alternate days because they had only one pair of shoes between them.  Certain quiet problems are especially pervasive and concerning.  One is caretaking responsibility, such as having to take care of a depressed or sick parent or look after younger siblings.”[xi] 
  • Many young children most in need enter school up to two years behind their more advantaged peers in both reading and math skills.  Children most in need of enriched pre-school are likely to lack access to these services, even though Head Start is a model program.  Head Start serves far fewer children than qualify economically, and the program’s funding is threatened in federal budget proposals.  Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond writes: “A growing body of research suggests that learning opportunities before children enter school… substantially predict their success or failure.  However, many children do not have the kinds of experiences at home or in a preschool setting that enable them to develop the communication and interaction skills, motor development, cognitive skills, and social-emotional skills that enable them to be independent learners when they arrive in school.  This undermines their academic success…. An estimated 30 to 40% of children enter kindergarten without the social and emotional skills and language experiences needed to be initially successful in school.”[xii]

Federal Public Education Policy Must Address Child Poverty to Support Children and to Support Public Schools and Teachers

And yet, today’s federally endorsed school turnaround strategies—replace the teachers—close the school and move the children—charterize or privatize the management—are likely to de-stabilize the education of children and families who desperately need to be able to count on core institutions in their communities.  A statement from the Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education, “The Inconvenient Truths About Turning Around Schools,” explains precisely and concisely where we have gone wrong:

The prevalent but fundamentally flawed narrative around “fixing” troubled schools goes something like this: “Low student test scores tell us which schools are underperforming. These schools fail because of weak leadership, low expectations among teachers, and inefficient use of resources.  The only way to fix these schools is to ‘transform’ them by bringing in new teachers and leaders, or should that fail, close them down.” Hewing to this faulty narrative, so-called turnaround efforts—as codified in federal Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind legislation—have failed to produce the promised gains for students and for schools.[xiii] 

The schools labeled as “in need of improvement”—those slated for punishment, closure, charterization, privatization or other radical turnaround—are almost without exception the schools serving concentrations of our nation’s poorest children. What will we have to do as a society to fulfill our responsibility to these children and their public schools? 

  • Our society will need to support and help the public schools that serve high concentrations of poor children; we must stop blaming teachers and sanctioning schools. We must also recognize that public schools are stable community anchors that cannot be closed at will or easily replaced. Schools in poor communities need resources to build relational trust among staff and the conditions and curriculum that middle class children take for granted.  
  • Our society will need to intervene in the cycle of family poverty to ensure that our poorest children all have access to enriched preschool, medical care, and after school and summer programs.

Here is a short resource that identifies needed reforms:  The Essential Supports from Organizing Schools for Improvement, from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, 2010.

Additional Resources


UCC Resource: The 2012 Justice & Witness Message on Public Education explores the connection of poverty and school achievement historically and in more depth.


December 29, 2011: New York Times reports explosive growth in number of children who qualify for free lunch:  The School Lunch Barometer.


November, 2011:  Education and Poverty: Confronting the Evidence.  The author, Helen Ladd is a professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and one of the co-conveners of the Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education. 


November 2011: Education sociologist Pedro Noguera explains how poverty and school achievement are woven together and how society can break through in A Broader and Bolder Approach Uses Education to Break the Cycle of Poverty.

UCC Web Page: The Situation of Children in this Recession



 [i] National Center for Children in Poverty, http://www.nccp.org/profiles/state_profile.php?state=US&id=7.
Ibid., p. 5-6.
Southern Education Foundation, “The Worst of Times: Children in Extreme Poverty in the South and Nation,” 2010, p. 5, http://www.southerneducation.org/pdf/TWOT-Extreme%20Child%20Poverty%20Rpt-Final.pdf.
Anthony Bryk, et al, Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), p. 165.
Ibid., p. 172.
Ibid., p. 176.
Ibid., p. 187.
Southern Education Foundation, p. 4.
Richard Rothstein, “Point Counterpoint,” Center on American Progress, 2006, p. 19. http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2006/08/point_counterpoint.pdf.
Kim Nauer, et al, “Strengthening Schools by Strengthening Families: Community Strategies to Reverse Chronic Absenteeism in the Early Grades and Improve Supports for Children and Families,” Center for New York City Affairs: The New School, October, 2008, p. 3. 
Richard Weissbourd, “The ‘Quiet’ Troubles of Low-Income Children,” Harvard Education Letter, March/April 2008, p. 8.
Linda Darling-Hammond, The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future (New York: Teachers College Press, 2010), p. 33.
“The Inconvenient Truths About Turning Around Schools,” Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education, 2011  http://www.boldapproach.org/files/Turnaround-brief.pdf