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America۪s Startlingly High Child Poverty Rate: What Can Education Do to Help?

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Child poverty is a tragedy anywhere, but its continued prevalence is especially disturbing in a nation as wealthy as the U.S. Unfortunately, the percentage of American children living in poverty is almost unparalleled, ranking second highest among the 35 richest nations. Even more sobering, 2.8 million children live in extreme poverty, subsisting on $2 or less per day.

Rutgers University Graduate School of Education professor Bruce Baker and I explored these high levels of poverty and synthesized research on their relationship to educational outcomes and future economic opportunity. Unsurprisingly, we found that low-income children perform substantially worse across a wide range of indicators. And while we shouldn۪t count on schools alone to ameliorate these disparities, there are a number of steps that education policymakers can take to improve the prospects for our must vulnerable youth.

We know the severely harmful impact that poverty can have on children. Today, the achievement gap between the poor and the non-poor is twice as large as the achievement gap between black and white students. Tracking in-school performance of students in every age group shows substantial differences by income, including poverty status. These differences influence college attendance and graduation, limiting economic and social mobility and perpetuating the gap between rich and poor.

Longitudinal research shows that, on average, children growing up in poverty complete less schooling, and the effects are long-lasting. They work and earn less as adults, are more likely to receive public assistance, and have poorer health. Boys in poverty are more likely to be arrested, and girls are more likely to give birth outside of marriage. The consequences of these disparities are enormous, with one estimate suggesting that persistent child poverty costs the U.S. economy $500 billion a year (roughly four percent of GDP).

The challenges we describe in our report represent systemic and structural inequalities that are particularly daunting in today۪s economic and political climate. Yet these challenges point the way to strategies that can moderate the influence of poverty on educational and life outcomes.

While education reforms are not a panacea, well-targeted efforts can play an important role in increasing the well-being and opportunity for poor children. An overarching goal should be to ensure equitable funding within our education system with an adequate focus on programs targeted at low-income children. For our youngest children, high-quality early childhood education programs, which have been shown to improve the educational outcomes of all children, but particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, should be a central part of these efforts.

At the same time, states and the federal government should devote the necessary funding to keep skilled teachers in high-poverty K-12 classrooms. Unfortunately, evidence exists that the opposite happens, with poorer urban schools having a disproportionate share of less-qualified teachers. Better incentives, such as bonus payments, offer one potential tool for attracting more teaching talent to low-income areas.

Additionally, many of the nation۪s schools are increasingly segregated by race/ethnicity and income. And growing empirical evidence suggests that expanded school choice programs in some settings are exacerbating these trends. We should commit ourselves to ensuring that all students have the opportunity to attend schools with peers from diverse social and economic backgrounds.

Finally, beyond educational reforms, we need to raise awareness as to the scope of poverty and its consequences. Current poverty levels, combined with the growing wealth gap between those at the top and bottom of the income distribution, threaten to destabilize our democracy and limit the upward mobility of future generations. Relatedly, we need to continue to refine our measurements of poverty so that we can more fully understand and respond to the challenges that low-income American families face. This means expanding the official definition of income to include government spending directed at low-income families and to recognize cost-of-living differences across regions.

It۪s vital for Americans to understand that addressing poverty is justified beyond appeals to fairness. Child poverty and our education systems should also be viewed through the lens of economic and national self-interest. Changing U.S. demographics will require that our public education system do more to meet the needs of our increasingly diverse student body if the nation is to remain competitive in the world economy.

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Richard J. Coley is the former executive director of the Center for Research on Human Capital and Education at the Educational Testing Service.

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