Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

Reducing the disparities in children's achievement will require reaching beyond the educational system.

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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.

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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.

Accompanying Charts:

Click on links to view charts.

Language Landscape
U.S. Census Bureau data from 2005 show that the percentage of children whose parents are fluent speakers of English varies by region of the country. In this instance, fluency is defined as being a native speaker of English or speaking English "very well." All resident parents must be fluent in English for a family to be considered "linguistically integrated."

Disparities in Degrees
Nationwide, 43 percent of children younger than 18 live with at least one parent who holds a two- or four-year degree from a postsecondary institution. But state-by-state patterns vary widely. While 58 percent of children in North Dakota live with at least one parent with a postsecondary degree, that’s true for only 30 percent of children in the District of Columbia.

Health Checkup
Providing health-care services to children can ensure that they come to school ready to learn. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that the percentage of children without health insurance has declined in recent years. Even so, more than 7 million children in the United States lack consistent health-care coverage.

Behind at Birth
Low-birth-weight babies, on average, are more likely to have mild learning disabilities and attention disorders once they enter school. Nearly 14 percent of black children are born with low birth weights, about double the rate for Hispanic and non-Hispanic white youngsters.

Poverty and Race
Family income has large effects on children’s chances for success. In the United States, about 28.4 million children, or four in 10, live in families earning $40,000 or less annually. Just over 18 percent live in families earning less than $20,000 annually, the poverty level for a family of four. Black and Hispanic youngsters are nearly half as likely as non-Hispanic white children to live in families earning enough to meet their most basic needs, about two times the federal poverty level.

“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, 26-27

Published in Print: January 4, 2007, as Breaking The Cycle Of Poverty
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Quality Counts is produced with support from the Pew Center on the States.

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