Education Opinion

We Are All Poorer for Neglecting Students in Poverty

By Gary Marx — June 04, 2015 4 min read
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Definitions of poverty seem too clinical, and its consequences can hardly be measured by percentages on a well-designed chart. We’re talking about real people who, for one reason or another, are living with resources so slim that even their access to food, clothing, and shelter are severely limited. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that “individuals are considered poor if the resources they share with others in the household are not enough to meet basic needs.”

Read more in Chapter 19 of Twenty-One Trends

The official 2013 U.S. poverty rate for children under 18 was 19.9 percent. An estimated 45.3 million people overall lived in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Meanwhile, in the fall of 2014, UNICEF reported that 32.2 percent of children in the U.S. lived in homes where household income was below 60 percent of the 2008 national median income (measured toward the beginning of the Great Recession).

For the record, the 2015 U.S. poverty threshold was set at $24,250 for a family of four. The low income threshold for that same size family is generally considered to be twice the prevailing poverty level, although it can vary for specific programs. Using a similar measure and looking back to 2013, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) noted that 51 percent of students across the nation’s public schools were low-income. In 21 states, a majority of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT Data Book consistently shows that the percentages of children living in poverty vary widely across racial and ethnic groups.

We could recite numbers until we’re breathless. The driving question simply must be, “What are we going to do about it?” Children’s Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman declares, “Shameful child poverty levels call for urgent and persistent action. It’s way past time to eliminate epidemic child poverty and the child suffering, stress, homelessness, and miseducation it spawns.”

Persistent problems demand dogged persistence in solving them. During the Great Depression, jobs programs created opportunities for people to find work. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty. The effort was strengthened by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Head Start programs for disadvantaged preschool children beginning in 1965-66, and the historic National School Lunch Program. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) aimed to lift all students, including those from low income circumstances, to within reach of the Golden Ring, as members of civil society and the economy.

The battle was sparked, in part, by unequal opportunities and injustices that prevailed for decades. That led to Brown vs. Board of Education, a bold statement that our future depends on providing equal educational opportunity for all. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Lincoln Memorial “I Have a Dream” address during the 1963 Poor People’s March on Washington continues to echo across the nation and world.

What have we learned? Where do we go from here? If we hope for a brighter future, we need to get even more serious about finding answers and moving forward. The sense of urgency is flaming. The time is now.

Health, nutrition, affordable and acceptable housing, high quality education for all, safe communities, support for families of young children, decent jobs, help with child care and transportation as well as some other work-related costs, wrapped in a sense of dignity and respect, are an investment, not an expense. Pre-kindergarten programs and high expectations for all students seem essential. Peter Edelman of the Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Public Policy, has called for “launch of a full-scale attack on poverty.”

In an article for ASCD’s Educational Leadership, Richard Rothstein, research associate for the Economic Policy Institute, wrote, “Closing or substantially narrowing achievement gaps requires combining school improvement with reforms that narrow the vast socio-economic inequalities in the United States.” Rothstein goes on to say, “Without such a combination, demands that schools fully close achievement gaps not only will remain unfulfilled, but also will cause us to foolishly and unfairly condemn our schools and teachers.” The Iceberg Report, released in 2015 by the Horace Mann League and National Superintendents Roundtable, emphasizes the need for sound education policy that can only have a chance if it is supported by sound social and economic policy.

As I make clear in Twenty-One Trends for the 21st Century, education and society should be determined to help those caught in poverty to get out of it and those who aren’t to avoid it.

The cost of neglect is another elephant in the room. When we neglect children and education, we all pay for it, one lifetime after another. Morally and economically, that cost is greater than the up-front investment. Public neglect shows up in compromised student achievement, dropouts or push-outs, and a likelihood that too many young people will give up on pursuing or sticking with postsecondary education. Add to that a whole lot of personal frustration, maybe fuller jails, doused dreams, and diminished hope. Homelessness, poor health, and hunger have consequences, both for those who suffer them and for the whole of society.

Will we ever know the diseases we could have conquered, the ideas and inventions that might have lifted our economy and our civil society, the peace we might have won, and the justice that might have prevailed, if we had just made sure that all of us put our minds and hearts to overcoming poverty?

Keep this in mind: If even one person is poor, in one way or another we are all poorer because of it.

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