We Must Address Poverty to Improve Education

This Week in Poverty: Time to Take On Concentrated Poverty and Education

Greg Kaufmann on February 1, 2013

Students at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Dorchester, Massachusetts. (Reuters/Adam Hunger)

Co-authored with Elaine Weiss

Researchers know a lot about how various factors associated with income level affect a child’s learning: parents’ educational attainment; how parents read to, play with and respond to their children; the quality of early care and early education; access to consistent physical and mental health services and healthy food. Poor children’s limited access to these fundamentals accounts for a good chunk of the achievement gap, which is why conceiving of it instead as an opportunity gap makes a lot more sense.

But we rarely discuss the impact of concentrated poverty—and of racial and socioeconomic segregation—on student achievement. James Coleman’s widely cited 1966 report Equality of Educational Opportunity has drawn substantial attention to the influence of family socioeconomic status on a child’s academic achievement. However, as Richard Kahlenberg, Senior Fellow at the Century Foundation, notes: “Until very recently, the second finding, about the importance of reducing concentrations of school poverty, has been consciously ignored by policymakers, despite publication of study after study that confirmed Coleman’s findings.”

It’s time that we stop ignoring it. The past few decades have seen increasing income polarization, with the top 1 percent reaping the vast majority of societal gains, the middle class shrinking, and those at the bottom losing ground. As a result, concentrated poverty is more potent and relevant an issue than ever. Add to that the fact that 2012 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of William Julius Wilson’s groundbreaking book, The Truly Disadvantaged, and we have every reason to reexamine the life realities, impacts and policy implications of segregation and entrenched, concentrated US poverty.

Wilson’s research explains how a combination of northward migration among African-American families, disproportionate loss of jobs in the industries in which they worked and the mass migration of middle-class black families from city centers to suburbs, created an underclass comprised of the truly disadvantaged: concentrated ghettos of poor, unemployed, under-educated families with dim school and life prospects, largely headed by single black women. Although Wilson’s work spurred multiple policy fields and thousands of studies on concentrated poverty, the reality for those experiencing it remains tragically unchanged. The number and proportion of families living in concentrated poverty dropped briefly during the boom years of the 1990s, but it has since increased again and even spread further:

[T]he problem of poverty concentration is growing, and the type of district grappling with the issue is no longer confined to those in urban areas. According to the U.S. Department of Education’sCondition of Education, 47% of elementary students now attend majority low-income schools, and the proportion of high-poverty schools has grown from 34 % in 1999 to 47 % in 2008. A 2010 Brookings Institution report, “The Suburbanization of Poverty,” found that in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, more poor people live in large suburbs than in their primary cities. (Kahlenberg p.3)

This trend frustrates efforts to improve educational achievement among low-income and minority students. Concentrated poverty plays a key role in explaining why poor white students perform better on tests, on average, than African-American students with similar family incomes. Not only are white children much less likely than their black peers to live in poverty (12.5 percent versus 37 percent), among those who are poor,only 12 percent of white children live in concentrated poverty, while nearly half of poor African-American children do. Black students are thus much more likely to attend schools in which most of their classmates are also poor. It isn’t hard to imagine the impact of this divide: black students disproportionately lack peers whose parents went to college and who take for granted that they will go; their schools and the pathways to them are more likely to be dangerous; their PTAs are comprised of parents with little political power to get the school system to meet their demands; and too many parents are overwhelmed by factors that render help with homework a major challenge—multiple or late-night jobs, cramped and unhealthy housing, lack of heat, and insufficient food.

Breaking up concentrated poverty and reducing segregation at the neighborhood and school levels offers tremendous potential. As Kahlenberg points out, “on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), low-income fourth grade students given the chance to attend more-affluent schools in math are two years ahead of low-income students stuck in high-poverty schools.”

Dr. Heather Schwartz, policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, also finds that socioeconomic integration trumps extra resources in boosting achievement. In her rigorous study of Montgomery County, Maryland, schools, low-income students whose subsidized housing assignments enabled them to attend very low-poverty schools closed more of the achievement gap with their high-income peers than did low-income students in higher-poverty schools who received an additional $2,000—monies which were devoted to extended learning time, smaller classes, and specialized professional development.

Effective policies exist to de-concentrate poverty and desegregate schools. Montgomery County showcases one of the smartest: laws that require developers to set aside a proportion of new housing units for subsidized housing, so that rather than creating ghettos of all-poor families (and resource-poor schools to go with them), lower-income families are able to reside in higher-income areas, and their children attend higher-income schools. Counties and cities across the country are exploring and adopting less restrictive zoning laws, since minimum-acreage lot requirements inherently lead to income segregation and force the concentration of poverty in less-restricted regions. The Century Foundation’s recent book, The Future of School Integration, advocates school “choice” focused on integrating students through voluntary inter-district transfer, and magnet schools that draw students of different ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds without busing, by making the case to today’s parents that a twenty-first-century education requires no less.

As the United States increasingly regresses toward a Gilded Age of haves and have-nots—in terms of income, education, and opportunity—taking on concentrated poverty is critical. Indeed, Richard Rothstein and Mark Santow assert in their recent paper that, until we do so, education reform efforts are all but doomed. Continuing to consign so many children and families to communities devoid of pathways out of poverty is tantamount to throwing away our greatest resource for the twenty-first century: human potential.

Elaine Weiss is the national coordinator for the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, where she works with a high-level Task Force and coalition partners to promote a comprehensive, evidence-based set of policies to allow all children to thrive.

Update: 2013 Anti-poverty/Pro-prosperity Contract

There are a handful of groups that have expressed interest in collaborating on a version of the anti-poverty contract for 2013, and at least one prominent advocate that is working on building a coalition around it. In the meantime, progress is being made on some of the five issues I recently highlighted in my post.

Child Care and Early Learning

Joan Entmacher, vice president for family economic security at the National Women’s Law Center, writes, “Some good news from two states advancing elements of the anti-poverty agenda you outlined.”

She reports that in Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick announced a plan to strengthen the state’s education system, including early education and childcare. The plan would eliminate the state’s waiting list of nearly 30,000 children who cannot currently access childcare assistance; help early educators and childcare providers improve their programs and attain higher levels of proficiency, skill and quality; increase educational programs and supports for parents and family members to further engage them in their child’s eduication, and strengthen efforts to provide comprehensive support to children and families. In addition to these provisions, new school finance funding would be used to incentivize school districts to offer pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds. It would all be financed by new, progressive revenues.

In Missouri, Governor Jay Nixon proposes to expand childcare assistance to more than 2,800 children with a $6.3 million funding increase. These funds would allow families who qualify for childcare assistance (at up to 122 percent of the federal poverty level) to continue to receive “transitional childcare” assistance until they earn up to 175 percent of the poverty level.

Minimum Wage

Entmacher also reports that in Maryland, lawmakers will introduce a bill to gradually raise the Maryland minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.00 per hour, set the tipped minimum wage at 70 percent of the minimum wage, and index both wages to keep pace with inflation. The increase would boost the wages of full-time, full-year minimum wage workers by $5,500—enough to lift a family of three above the poverty line, as the wage did historically in the 1960s and ’70s. It’s especially welcome news for women, who are 60 percent of the state’s minimum wage workers.

In New York, Governor Cuomo’s budget proposes to raise the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.75 per hour and increase the minimum wage for tipped food service workers from $5 to $6.03 per hour in 2013, though these wages would not be indexed for inflation. A new report from the Fiscal Policy Institute and the National Employment Law Project finds that more than 1.5 million New Yorkers—the majority of them women—would get a raise under Governor Cuomo’s proposal. Lawmakers in a number of other states, ranging from Connecticut to Hawaii, are considering minimum wage increases as well.

And disappointing, but not unexpected, news from New Jersey, where Governor Christie issued a conditional veto of a bill raising New Jersey’s minimum wage. Sponsors of the bill are proposing to raise and index the minimum wage through a constitutional amendment.

Paid Sick and Family Leave

Family Values @ Work reports that in the midst of what the CDC is calling the worst flu season in a decade, this week has seen the launch of paid sick days campaigns in Philadelphia (where 200,000 workers do not have paid sick time), Massachusetts (where 1 million workers do not have paid sick time), and in Maryland(where 700,000 people do not have paid sick time.) City Council members in Portland, Oregon were preparing for a hearing on paid sick days as this post was being drafted, to be followed soon after by a vote.

Other states considering paid sick leave legislation include Washington State and Vermont, where the attorney general is considering paid sick days as part of a comprehensive equal pay agenda, and the state legislature is exploring legislation as well.

At the federal level, the Healthy Families Act would allow workers in businesses with fifteen or more employees to earn up to seven job-protected paid sick days each year—to recover from their own illnesses, access preventive care or provide care for a sick family member.

You can check out the stories of workers who were fired because they got sick in Sick and Fired.


Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid introduced legislation based on the Farm Bill that passed the Senate in 2012, which included a $4.49 billion cut to SNAP (food stamp) benefits. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow has indicated that the bill will be marked up in committee as soon as possible. Initial findings from the Health Impact Project are that these cuts would result in a monthly loss of benefits of: $76 for households with an elderly person; $69 for households with a disabled person; $67 for households headed by a single female; $68 for households with a veteran; and $68 for households that are food insecure. The average recipient receives just $133 per month ($4.46 per day), so the cut is significant. The House version of the Farm Bill in the last Congress cut $16 billion from SNAP, and the new analysis projects that between 1.7 million and 5 million people would lose their benefits under this proposal.

Meanwhile, a new brief from the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) details the research demonstrating how SNAP not only reduces hunger but also improves healthcare, including: fewer hospitalizations for young children, better dietary quality and obesity prevention, and improved economic outcomes for adults who received SNAP during childhood.

You can keep up with the Farm Bill and help protect SNAP here.

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