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Education Opinion

Overestimating our Affluence/Underestimating Poverty

By Sara Mead — November 01, 2010 1 min read

Matt Yglesias flags an interesting poll showing that Americans dramatically overestimate the percentage of American households with incomes greater than $250,000 a year. Matt draws this out into a broader conclusion that Americans tend to underestimate how well off they are economically relative to their fellow citizens. But I think the converse is equally likely and important: Thanks to high levels of residential segregation by income and what Matt elsewhere calls “the near-total disenfranchisement of genuinely poor people in American politics and American political media” (although the absence of poor people is hardly unique to the political media), poor people are largely invisible to many middle-class Americans, leading folks to underestimate how many Americans really are poor or low-income.

This is relevant to our education policy debates. When Waiting for Superman came out, there was a bunch of commentary along the lines of “America’s schools are pretty good on the whole; they just don’t work all that well for poor kids.” But more than 20% of American kids are poor! And more than 40% of children are low-income and fall under the poverty measure (FRPL status) commonly used in education policy debates. A school system that works “pretty well” but fails 1 out of 5 kids is not really working all that well. And a school system that doesn’t effectively serve 40% of children is a catastrophe. Americans like to think of ourselves as a predominantly middle-class nation, and that is reflected in our education policy debates, but in fact, a very large percentage of our children are not middle class.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.