Does “Poverty” Cause Low Achievement?

On her “Bridging Differences” blog, educator Deborah Meier began a discussion with Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, on whether urging disadvantaged women to defer childbearing until they had sufficient income (whether from work or marriage) to adequately support their offspring would result in better outcomes for those children. This, in turn, led to an extended discussion (not on the blog, but widely circulated among some education policy experts and commentators by e-mail) about whether alleviating poverty would raise student achievement, whether alleviating poverty through tax reform or income redistribution might be effective for that purpose, whether poor children in the United States have worse outcomes than poor children in other countries, what the best way might be to calculate poverty levels across countries, and whether school reform in the absence of alleviating poverty can be significantly effective.

The shortcoming of this discussion is that because Americans are averse to acknowledging the concept of social class and hold to a widely shared myth of unrestricted mobility (that is less and less reflective of reality), we tend to use the term “poverty” as a proxy for lower social class status. This shortcut causes great mischief in educational policy. Lower class children are not only characterized by having families with low current money income; they also have a collection of interacting characteristics, each of which affects the ability to learn.

Years ago, the Heritage Foundation published a report called No Excuses, by Samuel Casey Carter. Among others, one school it found enrolled a majority of children who were eligible for subsidized lunches yet who still had high achievement. According to the report, this (along with other, equally flawed examples) proved that poverty is no bar to high achievement. The school in question was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and it turned out that the students mostly had parents who were graduate students at Harvard or MIT, whose stipends were low enough that their children were eligible for the lunch program.

Of course, how much money a child’s parents earned last year (the qualifier for the lunch program) does not itself impede learning. But poverty is a good proxy, sometimes, for lower class status because it is so highly associated with other characteristics of that status.  Lower class families have lower parental literacy levels, poorer health, more racial isolation, less stable housing, more exposure to crime and other stresses, less access to quality early childhood experiences, less access to good after school programs (and less ability to afford these even if they did have access), earlier childbearing and more frequent unwed childbearing, less security that comes from stable employment, more exposure to environmental toxins (e.g., lead) that diminish cognitive ability, etc. Each of these predicts lower achievement for children, but none of these (including low income) itself causes low achievement, and lower social class families don’t necessarily have all of these characteristics, but they are likely to have many of them. Sociologists used to define social class solely by assigning a reputational status to a father’s occupation. That no longer is as useful, but sometimes it might lead to less mischief than “poverty.”

One problem that has puzzled observers of education for some time is the fact that after controlling for poverty, black achievement is still lower than white achievement, and some conclude from this that they have now disposed of background characteristics and can be certain that an important cause of the achievement gap must be poorly qualified and motivated teachers and/or low teacher expectations. Without denying that some teachers are poorly qualified and motivated, and do have low expectations, and that this should be a target of educational improvement efforts, this explanation as a major cause of the achievement gap is mostly false, because black children have many social class characteristics that are different from those of white children whose parents have the same current-year income, even when all of them—black and white—have excellent teachers. Some years ago, in the Jencks-Phillips book, The Black-White Test Score Gap, Meredith Phillips addressed this issue, and showed that adding very few other social class controls, besides family income, explained much of the black-white gap. Patrick Sharkey’s new book, Stuck in Place, shows that black children living in high poverty neighborhoods are more likely than white children to have parents who also lived in high poverty neighborhoods. Black poverty tends to be multi-generational, white poverty tends to be episodic. Others have shown that permanent (i.e., multi-year) income explains more than current year income.

In short, the poverty rate itself is not an adequate explanatory factor. Lower class status better explains what we puzzle about. Unfortunately, it is a lot harder to find simple data to compare children across countries by social class status than to pick an easy (but mischievous) one like “poverty rate,” no matter how it is adjusted. If I had to pick a single one, it would not be poverty but mother’s educational attainment, although this single measure would also be unsatisfactory. In the report that Martin Carnoy and I did earlier this year on international test scores, we compared the achievement of children across countries by the number of books they reported having at home (actually, the number of feet of shelf space devoted to books). This, too, was an inadequate measure, but we thought it the best one available cross-country because it was more academically relevant.

Addressing any one of the characteristics of lower class status can make some difference, but if addressed in isolation, will not make the difference to which we aspire. So while the start of this discussion had some merit—it would make some difference if lower-class women could be encouraged to delay maternity, or if they bore children only with a stable co-parent—telling women to marry if they live in communities where unemployment and underemployment of young men reaches 40 percent (as is true in some African American communities today), or where the failures of economic policy lead to few “marriageable males,” that advice, even if followed, won’t accomplish all that much. For example, if children are born into more stable marriages, or get better early childhood care and education, but still lose 5 to 10 points of I.Q. because of lead exposure (as the medical literature shows is the result), having a husband present or attending pre-school, in themselves, won’t substantially narrow the achievement gap.

As Martin Carnoy and I showed, there is a social class achievement gap in every country, and it is of roughly similar size, even in countries which purportedly have much superior school systems. This should suggest that school improvement alone will not narrow that gap in the absence of addressing its social and economic causes. Certainly we should improve schools, but if we want to raise the achievement of disadvantaged children substantially in our own country, we will have to improve the collection of interacting and mutually reinforcing characteristics of lower social class status. Addressing any one of them alone—whether it be income, or teen childbearing, or some other—will be a good thing to do, but won’t get us very far on the path we hope to take.


  • Amy Valens

    This is basically the message of many of us. The Broader Bolder Approach to Education is one among several national groups that has been advocating this for years. Imagine if a concerted non punative effort that linked all the causes were our national priority?

  • del2124

    The problem with this discussion is that this “collection of interacting characteristics, each of which affects the ability to learn” is primarily the result of being poor. They have class distinctions in Western Europe and Asia, too, but they also have much higher achievement, probably because they don’t have so many poor children.

  • Yes.

  • Greg Thrasher

    For consideration before we offer an opinion on this tired debate it is critical that we debunk the myth about the ‘High Achievement” in both the middle and upper class in America..Recent studies have documented the rampant grade inflation and hyped gpa’s from both affluent public and private schools..Last year MSU reported it’s incoming freshman class required remedial math and reading classes..Often when international academic indicies are reported USA falls in the lower middle of the rankings not the top!!
    Of course there remains powerful disinformation and propaganda about the achievement abilities of poor aka Black students.. The specter of genetic inferiority themes are always present when there are discussions about “the academic gap’ .We must confront them head on with our own data and studies and real life outcomes..
    Greg Thrasher
    Washington DC.

  • Linda Smith

    I believe this is a great insight; indeed a wide variety of sometimes interlocking and sometimes cross reinforcing factors are what show up in the effect of poverty. When look at a ECLS review of determinants of outcomes, they are remarkable in their count and rich diversity. This is why I am drawn to addressing the gap through 1) a complex variety of avenues, 2) addressing processes (family dynamics) not merely inputs, and 3) emphasizing core processes that might spiral out to affect other processes. For starters imagine these supports: a) home visitation (addressing health and implicitly home processes), b) parenting supports (which supports the child holistically), and c) addiction remediation (which can affect parent-child communication, supervision, understanding, learning modelling, psychological health). And other interventions have appeal both for their benefit to student outcomes and on basic grounds of basic human decency, such as provision of health care and nutrition support. Although very few of these are a strict definition of poverty, one can imagine that these dynamics may have caused poverty in the prior generation, and that they may be reflected in the measured effect of poverty on educational outcomes. Oh, and several of these interventions are found to have benefits greater than the costs!

  • Insightful, well-thought out, and extremely useful, as usual, Richard. Thanks for this piece.

  • Repairman632

    Armchair economist time for me. Another part of the poverty dynamic is that even if education “succeeds” such that those born into poverty are able to escape it, they cannot easily do so within the generational poverty afflicted communities they lived in as students. No matter how able they may be at running a business or simply being the kind of employee who can move up in the ranks, their economic prowess will have little effect in a community that is unable to take sufficient advantage of the opportunities they might create. Those who succeed in becoming “educated” will have no choice but to leave their communities if they want to fully realize the potential that comes from being the exceptions to the rule. Just as test performance pressures have coerced many charters into skimming the best students from traditional public schools, leaving the most difficult behind, economic pressures will force the small number of those who “make it” out of the very communities who need them. Education can’t fulfill it’s legitimate part of the efforts to reduce and eliminate poverty in an economic wasteland, it must have fertile soil in which to grow and bear fruit, soil being knowledge, training and skills that must be imported from elsewhere in society. That is the form that most all of the money that must be targeted at poverty should take. To paraphrase, “If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day, if you teach a community to fish, they eat for a lifetime.”

  • ElEl Abeula’s Angel

    Very well spoken point. Poverty is not an endearing class status. NO ONE aspires to be poor. “Lower class” strata endure hardships and inexplicable daily chaos; dysfunction; disenfranchisement; misrepresentations; lack of access and the RECYCLING of very bad information. Poverty is a negative cycle of defeat and IMPRISONS those it consumes DAILY. You covered very important bases…I just hope that HUMANS are implored to eradicate POVERTY like Polio as Poverty is indeed a certain type of disease…I was born poorer than I could have imagined. All I recall is ALL I didn’t have access to. Life changed for me and I am OUT of that “bracket” (somewhat – as gov. Shut Down delineates something else) but I remember…

  • jwis

    Poverty rate works so well, why complicate it? Yes, there are competing forces under the umbrella of poverty, but they are apparent because of poverty. Why muddy the waters? It presents a simple problem and a simple solution. We may never understand all of the covariates involved…who cares…let’s just work on reducing child poverty. What could it hurt either way?

    • mjhoop

      Good point. No harm done. But if my ideas are correct, it won’t help much. See my other comment on this thread.

  • Frank B

    Great read. Actually change my mind on something I rant about all the time about how the number one predictor is not necessarily poverty, it is the percentage of two parent households in a given community. But I never thought about the idea that its not the fault of young women in this community choosing to have children out of wedlock and before they have money, its the idea that there simply not enough worthwhile men to enter into relationships with. I think the solution lies in giving those women a way OUT of that community. Offer them incentives to leave. Pay for them to leave. If you want to break the cycle, remove the women who are willing to leave. Offer them a chance to relocate to a better community where their chance of entering into a lifelong relationship with a productive human being where children will have a chance to grow up in a home with two parents who can support them.

  • Downtown Schools for Boston

    It’s also worth going beyond thinking of each family or student on their own, and considering the effects of the concentration of poverty. The educational possibilities can be very different when poverty in a school is under 50% vs. 80-100%.

    See Kahlenberg, From All Walks of Life, under “The Growing Research Evidence” on p. 4.:

    “the social class of the school matters even more to student achievement than the SES of the family”
    “low income students attending more-affluent elementary schools (and living in more affluent neighborhoods) significantly outperformed low-income elementary schools who attend higher-poverty schools with state-of-the-art educational interventions.” – even though those interventions were effective

  • mjhoop

    I propose consideration of three issues not covered here:

    i. Authoritarian parent(s) shut down brain functions in the young, who find it useless to have their own ideas, because these will be quashed by the authoritarian parent who ALWAYS must have the last word. (Often the children of the authoritarians will marry or co-habit too young, in order to escape the prison of their lives). The children will most often be afraid to compete in the world and taking “the easy way out” becomes a habit. Self esteem will be a lifelong issue.

    2.Lack of expectations. If neither parent, nor another relative or close friend, has expectations and acts in a supportive, approving, loving way, then the child will not strive to achieve, perhaps because there is no payoff, no stroking, no affection, no change in circumstances to be gained. Struggle to achieve is a waste of time and the habit may not be taken up later in life. Often out of a fear of failure. (See #1)

    3. Lack of affection. If both parents are distant/pre-occupied/away from the home– working/away from home/emotionally distant/ mentally ill–and there are no long-term substitute caring bonding people in a child’s life–the brain is most likely to not develop properly & nerves throughout the body will not grow densely enough to form a complete human being. Instead we have a ferral child, more-or-less. An extended family is close to essential for good social, mental, and intellectual development. Be it blood relationships or forged social family.

    In other words, the emphasis might better be put on the spirit and heart, rather than on the litany of financial, class, environmental, and neighborhood issues. Not to discount these, but the article indicates that so far, no cause for low achievement has been pin-pointed.

    (My field is anthropology & I have done extensive study of the financially stressed immigrant family).