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Can Teachers Improve Students in Poverty?

27 million parents of K-12 school-age children struggle to bring in enough money to fully sustain their family. When their children struggle to eat well, sleep well, and begin to feel unsafe their ability to learn well can be compromised. Students who arrive hungry don’t learn as well as other students. Disadvantaged students can suffer from poverty, learning disabilities, and schools that cannot help them. What can we expect teachers to accomplish against an overwhelming tide of impoverished students?

So Many Disadvantaged Students

Of course parents and teachers work to ameliorate these disadvantages and students usually improve their learning with extra help, but the general way of understanding disadvantaged student learning and the over-generalized way of ameliorating these learning difficulties is the largest educational challenge facing America today. Half of our student body of 52 million K-12 children represents the highest percentage of disadvantaged students of any nation in the world.

Poverty in Schools

Poverty is the most common of all of these disadvantages—hunger, inability to read, early childhood trauma, COVID-19 distress. Poverty is shared by so many of the students in the United States that in 2016 a quarter of our students, maybe 13 million says the National Association of Secondary School Principals, attended high-poverty schools (NASSP, 2021) and the National Center for Education Statistics reported that 27 million, or 52% of students nationwide qualified for “Free and Reduced Lunch” (F&RL) in 2016 (NCES, 2021).

Inadequacy of Federal Definitions of Poverty Thresholds

Federal Government support suffers from this moving target definition and has not moved the needle on poverty in 60 years. But from some point of view, our country is more successful in those 60 years, right? If you are a family of four, two adults and two children, the definition of your poverty level means you only have an income of $27,131. Could this be right? And if you are living with six people, and four of them are children, the official poverty level is $35,674. These cannot be the real levels as it costs much more to live than these thresholds.

Multiple Definitions of Poverty in Society

Although schools do a good job of including as many students as possible in the category of free and reduced lunch (F&RL), the definition in our society has many meanings, and often includes less than a quarter of our population, leading to confusion and a lack of targeted responses to make a real difference. For example, on the internet, these are the three definitions that come up when you search on google for “poverty:”

  • “The state of being extremely poor.”
  • “The state of being inferior in quality or insufficient in amount.”the poverty of her imagination”
  • “the renunciation of the right to individual ownership of property as part of a religious vow.”

Poverty as Inferiority

The U.S. may not be united on the definition of poverty, but our nation is united on what it means from a neighbors’ point of view: inferiority. This feeling that you have somehow not measured up to society’s expectations is clearly communicated across all levels of society and is a huge driver of hate, shame, and division in our country. The amorphous definition of poverty traps our society into thinking that we cannot adequately address poverty because we cannot adequately define it. Poverty is a moving target and inherently not fixable and you are inferior.

Teachers Cannot Solve Poverty Alone

Schools have often been involved in the fight against poverty, but the resources we allocate to teachers to implement teaching strategies to address poverty—poverty of food, poverty of confidence, and poverty of imagination for example—are non-existent. Why do arts teachers who emphasize creativity somehow reach our most vulnerable and disadvantaged students? Because when you ask any student for their creative input, their engagement goes way up, and they often transition out of trauma protection mode and into learning mode. But our teachers and teaching artists are no match for the reality of the impoverished home environment and the resulting retreat of student risk. Students are not at risk, we are at risk of losing our students.

Documentary on Early Childhood Poverty

Let’s look for some solutions to this. One set of solutions is nicely organized in a documentary on reducing poverty:

“This important documentary makes plain the urgent need to strengthen early childhood education in America. These early years are the bedrock for brain development and educational success. The lack of affordable, quality childcare is now reaching into working- and middle-class families as well, worsening inequality and endangering the country’s continued greatness.

—Geoffrey Canada, President, Harlem Children’s Zone

9 Ways to Reduce Poverty (Raising America, 2021)

Proven programs like high-quality early care and education and the Nurse-Family Partnership can help buffer the effects of poverty. But if we really want to improve life prospects for poor kids we need to reduce the number of poor kids. Which means increasing their families’ incomes.

There are many ideas for doing just that. While economic growth has disproportionately benefited high income groups while leaving low-income households behind, here are nine proposals to improve opportunity structures and increase the incomes of poor people already in play:

  1. Increase Employment 



    There’s a lot of work to be done in the U.S. but much of it won’t generate a profit. That’s where government can step in. Investments in infrastructure—fixing old bridges, building mass transit, converting to clean energy sources—and investments in vital services such as schools, childcare and elder care generate both public benefits and jobs. So do local-hiring ordinances for large employers in low-income communities.  Building low-cost housing provides jobs as it increases disposable income by lowering housing costs. Free community college could train more people. And if you believe anyone willing to work should have a job, then government can be the employer of last resort.

  2. Raise America’s Pay



    The 2015 federal minimum wage of $7.25 / hour comes to $15,080 annually for full time work, 52 weeks a year. The federal poverty threshold for a family of three is $20,090 (and try living on that!).  If the minimum wage were increased to $10.10/hour (lower in real dollars, btw, than the minimum wage of 1968), 20% of America’s children would benefit.  Cities and some states are taking the lead raising the minimum wage to a living wage.  Many studies suggest that strengthening unions and collective bargaining rights would also bring upward pressure on wages across the board.

  3. Sustain Not Cut the Social Safety Net



    Strengthening existing programs like unemployment insurance, food stamps (SNAP), cash assistance, and the earned income tax credit (EITC),  along with new initiatives like child allowances and a guaranteed income, can raise household income and protect children.

  4. Paid Family and Sick Leave



    Leave would protect parents who take time off to care for their new baby, a sick child or family member from falling into poverty.

  5. End Mass Incarceration



    The U.S. holds almost one quarter of the world’s prisoners. The war on drugs and police targeting of young black and brown men have wreaked special havoc on African American and Latino families, removing fathers from the workforce and their children. Many employers refuse to hire people with even minor criminal records, and many parolees are locked out of credit, housing, even education.

  6. Invest in High Quality Childcare and Early Ed



    Many parents must spend a significant chunk of their income on childcare, or can’t work because they can’t find quality childcare that’s affordable. Center-based care now averages more than $10,000 a year. Head Start (ages 3 – 5) funding enables it to serve only 42% of eligible families, while Early Head Start (birth to 3) serves less than 5%. Many studies illustrate that high quality childcare and ed helps low-income children build the foundation for skills that enable better education, jobs and earnings.

  7. Tackle Segregation and Concentrated Poverty



    Structural racism has placed an even greater burden on black and Latino children, particularly low income children, shuttling them to isolated, resource-poor, and excluded poor communities. Housing vouchers along with re-zoning enabling scattered site low-income housing would reduce segregation and concentrated poverty and give poor children of color better access to resources, schools and social capital they can use to get ahead.

  8. Immigration Reform



    Undocumented workers face limited employment options and are easily exploited by employers. Their families are thus more likely to be poor. Children also live with the ever-present fear and anxiety that their parents may be arrested and deported at any moment – and are injured by trauma when they are.

  9. End the Poverty Tax



    People living in low-income neighborhoods pay extra for most everything, from food to car loans, and are dependent upon high-interest “pay-day loans” because many banks won’t serve poor neighborhoods.  Nor can poor people afford to save money by purchasing in bulk. And without access to capital, low-income people can’t save enough to invest in their education or job training.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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