Breaking the Cycle of Poverty
Reducing the disparities in children's achievement will require reaching beyond the educational system.
A child who comes to school malnourished, from a poor household, having a mother with less than a high school education, or a parent whose primary language is not English is much more likely than a classmate without those factors to have academic and behavioral problems later on.
That means that radically improving children’s chances for success requires reaching beyond the education system.
As Valerie E. Lee and David T. Burkham write in their 2002 book Inequality at the Starting Gate, “We should expect schools to increase achievement for all students, regardless of race, income, class, and prior achievement.” But, they add, it is unreasonable to expect schools to completely eliminate any large pre-existing inequalities, especially if the schools themselves are “underfunded and overchallenged.”
And where children live in the United States further affects the challenges they’re likely to face. Compared with a youngster in Massachusetts, for example, an infant born in Mississippi is 49 percent more likely to have a low birth weight, slightly over twice as likely to live in a poor household, and 56 percent more likely to live in a family where neither parent has a postsecondary degree. He or she is also less likely to have health insurance or working parents.
As the statistics on the following pages make clear, education does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, broader social policies may be needed to address issues of changing demographics, health care, concentrated poverty, and an economy increasingly stratified by wealth.
Click on links to view charts.
“Equal opportunity,” Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, argues, “requires a full menu of social, economic, and educational reforms: in employment policy, health care, housing, and civil rights enforcement, as well as in schools.”
There are 73 million children in the United States, from birth through age 18. About four in 10—28.4 million—live in families with annual earnings of $40,000 or less, about twice the poverty level for a family of four, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University. Just over 18 percent live in families earning less than $20,000 annually.
More than six in 10 black and Latino children, and nearly six in 10 children of immigrant parents, live in low-income households.
While chances exist at every level of education—early-childhood, K-12, and postsecondary—to help break the cycle of poverty, a recent volume by the Washington-based Brookings Institution suggests that too often schools perpetuate rather than reduce class differences. That’s in part because children from low- income families generally attend schools that by any measure—school resources, student achievement, qualified teachers—lag behind those of their more affluent peers.
Vol. 26, Issue 17, Pages 20-22, 24, 26-27Published in Print: January 4, 2007, as Breaking The Cycle Of Poverty Quality Counts is produced with support from the Pew Center on the States.