School & District Management

What Will Poverty Sprawl Mean for School Districts?

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 25, 2016 2 min read
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The geography of child poverty is changing, and research suggests educators may need to tailor their supports for disadvantaged students in rural, suburban, and urban areas.

A study of child poverty in the journal Child Development Perspectives suggests child poverty is rapidly moving out from rural and inner-city communities to suburban areas and small towns, and income-related gaps in achievement skills were three times larger in large cities than in suburban and rural communities.

As the U.S. Census map of the Atlanta area shows, areas of relatively similar poverty levels within a relatively small geographic area can be densely urban, remote rural, or isolated pockets within wealthier suburbs:

Access to high-quality early childhood education, play spaces, housing stability, and exposure to pollutants that can harm development (Think of the lead poisoning crisis rocking Flint, Mich.) all vary by geography even for families at the same income levels, according to study authors Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal and Portia Miller of the University of Pittsburgh and Rebekah Coley of Boston College. The experience of poverty changes both the stresses on children and the resources to support them:


  • Urban poor students tend to have more chronic stressors, including high mobility, poor housing stock, higher crime rates, environmental and noise pollution, and limited access to nature. However, having a critical mass of students means urban poor areas generally have a wider variety of programs, and connection to closer, wealthier areas may mean more public resources such as museums or libraries.
  • Rural poor students may have lower crime and costs of living and better access to nature and play areas, but may be more economically (and potentially racially or linguistically) isolated. They also tend to have fewer early-childhood or school-age support and welfare programs available. Moreover, the researchers found rural poor students also can be likely to be exposed pollutants in farming areas, and these communities face rising levels of drug use and accompanying crime.
  • Suburban poor students tend to have lower stressors and higher resources than rural or urban poor students, but they may face more frequent discrimination from wealthier peers, and feel more socially isolated in their communities.

Using data from the federal Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey, the researchers analyzed reading and math standardized test scores for students at different income levels, based on whether they lived in rural, suburban or urban areas. For suburban and urban students, the income gap closed after a certain threshold, but the amount of money it took differed for children in urban and suburban areas. For example, income-related achievement gaps began to close for students in large urban centers once their families made at least $32,000 per year. In smaller cities and suburban communities, however, income achievement gaps did not begin to close until a a family made at least $64,000 per year. And for rural students, income and achievement remained linearly linked; the more money a family had, the better their students performed in math and reading.

Chart: The link between a student’s income and average reading scores differs based on the type of community in which she lives. Source: “Poverty, Urbanicity, and Children’s Development of Early Academic Skills,” Child Development Perspectives

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.


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