The Great Implications of Poverty

By GIRLWITHABOOK Intern, Rosie Vita

Poverty; low-income households; minimum wage: these are all words that often seem to be used by politicians every election season. But what are the effects of American poverty on education without the manipulation of politics? As it turns out, poverty is a complex issue with many factors, often overlapping, that can have profound effects especially on early childhood education.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 20 percent of children in school were in families living in poverty. This percentage is higher across the board in the lower half of the United States and the District of Columbia, with Mississippi topping out at 29 percent of children living below the poverty line. Poverty isn’t just limited to geographic region, either. The intersectionality of race and poverty is both noteworthy and troubling; it’s also worthwhile to point out that the southern United States have larger proportions of black and Hispanic populations than northern states. As of 2014, 38 percent of black children, 35 percent of American Indian/Alaska native children, and 32 percent of Hispanic children were living in poverty, as opposed to just 12 percent of white children and Asian children. The links between race and poverty in this country easily warrant their own article, so I suggest reading here for a better understanding of the racial disparities and consequences.

Another noteworthy statistic is that the rate of child poverty greatly increases in single-parent homes for all races; more than half of all black, Hispanic, and American Indian children living in households led by a single mother are living in poverty. These statistics obviously don’t give us the whole story, but they do show that geographic location, race, gender, and the combination thereof have profound ties to child poverty.

Free and reduced lunches are often used as a point of reference to measure poverty and low-income households and their effects in public schools. According to the USDA, the government agency that sets the guidelines for free and reduced lunches, the income eligibility guidelines are based on the Federal income poverty guidelines. In 2013, the Southern Education Fund and NCES found that, for the first time in fifty years, the majority of students in public schools came from low-income households, meaning that they qualified for free and reduced lunches.

But what does all of this mean? Poverty amongst children, especially in early childhood, has lasting consequences that often turn into a cycle, affecting generation after generation. According to a Princeton University article, children not living in poverty outperformed impoverished children in school two to one. Children living in poverty were twice as likely than their peers to repeat a grade, be expelled or suspended, and drop out of high school. This isn’t surprising, seeing as children living in poverty are much more likely than other children to have physical health problems, developmental delays and learning disabilities, and behavioral problems. Female teenagers are three times more likely to have a baby if they come from a poor family.

Looking back at my time in school, especially high school, these statistics take on a human form. I went to a racially diverse high school: 43 percent white, 25 percent black and 23 percent Hispanic. It wasn’t uncommon to see a Porsche or other luxury vehicle in the student parking lot, while 31 percent of the student body was on free and reduced lunches. While I wasn’t as aware of my privilege then as I am now, I did recognize that coming from a two-income white household that I was set up for success. Not only did I have health insurance and three nutritious meals a day, but I also had college-educated parents who understood the importance of early childhood education. I was read to at home every night as a child, and attended preschool. At the end of the day, I went home to a home-cooked dinner, warm bed, and parents to help me with my homework, while many of my classmates most likely went home hungry to one parent or two struggling to make ends meet. Is it surprising that I ended up excelling in high school and following in my parents’ footsteps to college while many of my classmates did not? I hope that after reading this article, you’re not surprised, either.