Equity & Diversity Opinion

What We Talk About When We Talk About Poverty

By Deborah Meier — May 28, 2013 6 min read
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Michael J. Petrilli continues his conversation with Deborah Meier today.

Dear Deborah,

I want to return to the perennial question of poverty as it relates to educational outcomes. One of the main arguments against education reform is that it misdiagnoses the problem. We have big “achievement gaps” in terms of test scores, graduation rates, college-going, and much else, but that’s primarily because of inequities in our society, not because of the failings of our schools—so goes the thinking.

As I indicated in my first post for Bridging Differences, I’m not opposed to tackling these larger issues of poverty and inequality. (Neither are most reformers.) But we’d better have a good understanding of what we’re tackling. I would argue that clarity is sorely lacking.

Is the issue really poverty, per se? The fact that many families in the U.S. don’t have enough income to provide the advantages that other children enjoy? If so, are we satisfied with delineating the problem with the poverty line (currently about $20,000 for a family of three)? That qualifies 23 percent of all children (as of 2011), up from 18 percent before the Great Recession.

Or should we include children a little bit above the poverty line—from families that are “near-poor” or “working-poor,” too? Say, up to 185 percent of poverty, the cut-off for eligibility for a reduced-price lunch? That captures 48 percent of all U.S. children (as of 2011).

Then again, standard poverty measures are imperfect. They don’t take into account certain services or benefits that low-income families receive, such as food stamps, Medicaid, or the Earned Income Tax Credit. (Poverty counts just look at income from work or from transfer payments.) If you consider those factors, poverty rates drop a few points.

And are we talking about kids who are born into poverty, or spend most of their lives in poverty, or are in poverty for just a few years? The “child poverty rate” is for any given point in time, but it masks these important differences. Several studies looked at children born way back in the late 1960s and early 1970s (my generation!). They found that about 25 percent of white children, and an astounding 79 percent of black children, were poor for at least a year during their childhoods. But long-term poverty was much rarer: One percent of white children and 30 percent of black children were poor for at least two-thirds of their childhoods. These children in “long-term poverty” were also more likely to be in “deep poverty,” meaning their families’ incomes were below half the poverty line. (If you do the math, those kids accounted for about 5 percent of the total.)

Not surprisingly, other studies have found that it’s the children in long-term and deep poverty who fare the worst on a variety of indicators, while those in poverty for a relatively short amount of time tend to do better.

So when you and your colleagues say that “poverty is the problem,” which kind of poverty are you talking about? Long-term poverty? Short-term poverty? Deep poverty? Near poverty? Fifty percent of the kids? Five percent?

Even more importantly, is it really poverty that’s the problem? Are we sure poverty’s not a proxy for other issues?

If it’s just poverty—not enough money—then it’s fairly easy to solve: We could just give poor families extra cash in order to make them not poor. We could do this by bringing back traditional welfare, or enlarging the Earned Income Tax Credit, or raising the minimum wage.

However, research and experience indicate that those sorts of “income supports” might help children at the margins, but they won’t make much of a dent in achievement gaps or the real inequities in our society. That’s because the most disadvantaged children—especially those who are born poor, and stay poor, for most of their childhoods—have the following, more deep-seated challenges in common:

  • Most were born to single mothers, and their fathers have been absent from the start, or by the time they turn two or three;
  • Most of their mothers were teenagers or in their early 20s when they gave birth;
  • Most of their mothers have very little education—a high school diploma or less--and thus few marketable skills;
  • Many of their mothers suffer from mental illness or addiction or both;

If we give these families more money, it would ease their hardships a bit, and the lower levels of stress might help the moms do a better job parenting. They might also be able to afford some educational goods they otherwise couldn’t—marginally better childcare or preschool, or books, or educational games.

But will it erase the huge gaps in early vocabulary development, non-cognitive skill-building, and other essential school readiness tasks between these disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers? Between these kids and their age-mates born into two-parent families? With highly-educated mothers and fathers? With parents who were in their 30s when they started families, instead of their teens?

To believe so, you’d have to put as much faith in cash transfers and social services as some reformers put in schools. You’d have to believe in miracles.

But, you might say, what about the international data? The conventional wisdom says that European countries with more generous social welfare systems don’t have the gaping inequalities we do, and their poor kids, as a result, do much better in school. The reason the U.S. trails internationally is because we don’t do enough to curb poverty, right?

Let’s look at that a bit. It’s true that the standard measures show the U.S. to be an outlier among rich countries in terms of childhood poverty. But these poverty measures are problematic, because they use a relative definition of poverty. They consider families to be poor if they make less than half the median national income. By definition, then, countries with greater inequality will have more poverty. Such measures look at how the pie is divided, but they don’t look at the size of the pie itself.

Absolute measures, on the other hand, take the U.S. poverty threshold, convert it into other currencies, make some adjustments for costs of living, and determine how many people in other countries fall below that line. Here’s what that looks like (at 125 percent the U.S. poverty rate):

Source: “Poor People in Rich Nations: The United States in Comparative Perspective,” Timothy Smeeding, 2006

Suddenly America’s child poverty rate looks almost normal, and certainly can’t explain our lackluster international performance on exams. (Note that our poverty rates are almost indistinguishable from Finland’s, everyone’s favorite star performer.)

But if we don’t look so bad when it comes to absolute “income poverty,” we do look very bad when it comes to fatherless families:

Source: http://worldfamilymap.org/2013/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/WFM-Table1.pdf.

And also teenage pregnancy:

Source: //www.oecd.org/els/family/SF2.4_Births%20outside%20marriage%20and%20teenage%20births%20-%20updated%20240212.pdf


In conclusion, Deborah, our issue isn’t just poverty, but parenting. We have a whole class of children growing up without fathers, and they are doing terribly. (Black boys in particular.) Traditional “anti-poverty” measures are unlikely to make much of a dent in solving this one.

So what’s left? What we need are “transformational” interventions that interrupt the insidious cycle that turns disadvantaged kids into disadvantaged parents, by giving them the hope, confidence, and skills to find a different path. I can’t think of institutions better positioned to do that than schools. Can you?


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