Student poverty grows, foreshadowing long-term academic, health concerns


by Félix Pérez/image courtesy of Judy Baxter

Children from low-income families can’t catch a break. First, the federal government’s across-the-board sequester eliminated Head Start services for 57,000 children. Now, adding insult to injury, a new report concludes that a majority of students in the South (53 percent) and, for the first time, the West (50 percent) live in poverty.

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Thirteen of the 17 states where the majority of students are from low-income families are in the South, according to the Southern Education Foundation. In Mississippi, more than seven out of 10 children (71 percent) are low income, followed by New Mexico (68 percent), Louisiana (66 percent), Oklahoma (61 percent) and Arkansas (60 percent).

The prevalence is “stunning,” said Peter Edelman, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy. He attributed the numbers to the ongoing recession and especially “the fact that we’ve become a low-wage nation.”


“If we don’t respond, these students and our country will face a terrible future,” said Edelman

Little Rock, Arkansas, elementary school teacher Wilfred Dunn sees the real-life consequences of poverty in his school every day. “I have students whose only meals are at school,” said Dunn. One hundred percent of the students at his school participate in the free and reduced-price meals program.

“You see it in the classroom. They can’t concentrate because they’re concerned with, ‘Am I going to have something to eat when I get home?’ or ‘Will the lights be on?’ ”

Dunn pointed to the recent federal government shutdown as emblematic of “Congress and politicians having their priorities in the wrong place. It didn’t matter to them what happened to people’s jobs. We need to provide for the lower economic part of our country and take care of our families.”

The Southern Education Foundation analysis underscored the short- and long-term consequences of pervasive student poverty: “Low-income students are more likely than students from wealthier families to have lower tests scores, fall behind in school, dropout and fail to acquire a college degree.”

The report continued:

With huge, stubbornly unchanging gaps in learning, schools in the South and across the nation face the real danger of becoming entrenched, inadequately funded educational systems that enlarge the division in America between haves and have-nots and endanger the entire nation’s prospects.

Additional research suggests a link between childhood poverty and the long-term development of mental and physical illness. Commenting to Bloomberg News on his study in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Pilyoung Kim, director of the Family and Child Neuroscience Lab at the University of Denver, said, “Living in poverty at a young age can cause long-lasting changes in brain development, which contribute to difficulties in regulating of emotions and future devastating health outcomes, including mental illness and high mortality and morbidity in adulthood.”

Edelman pointed to the continuation of tax incentives for low-income families such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and social safety net programs as cost-effective ways to address poverty.  Beyond that, he added, public education has an “absolutely essential” role to play in “improving economic outcomes.” For that to occur, schools in high-need areas must have adequate resources and offer wraparound services that “help the child and the family.”

Edelman continued, “We need the voices of educators, civic and faith leaders, and union leaders to say to policymakers, ‘We’re not going to give our kids a future of opportunity and hope unless we take more seriously the effort to reduce poverty.’ ”

Reader Comments

  1. Too many of the people under that dome in Washington are very comfortable and cannot identify with those close to and distant from the dome who are hurting. Those comfortable folks under the dome give more and more comfort to those who already have much comfort and deny comfort to those out from under the dome who are without comfort. Those without comfort are accused of choosing discomfort and are accused of being lazy. Subsidies in one form or another are given to the very comfortable, who in turn help the comfortable folks under the dome in their efforts to stay comfortable. But there is no comfort for an almost majority of the people outside the dome and apart from those subsidized. A few are fortunate enough to own a plot of land and can provide fresh or canned vegetables. They are lucky, but without a garden plot and without a living wage job are not lucky. Their children suffer at home and in the classroom because they do not check their family’s discomfort at the schoolhouse door before they enter the classroom. Why is that so difficult for some of those under the dome to see?

  2. Very interesting article. I find that “poverty” is mostly self made. People have the money for what they want(vacations/ haircuts/ $100 jeans) and then go to government programs to get what they need (housing/food/heating assistance/ healthcare). I have 5 kids and have been able to support them on an annual income of less that 27,000 without government handouts. My kids eat 3 meals a day, lunches provided by me. I always planted vegetable gardens, berries, and fruit trees: freezing and canning for future use. My job is low wage and no benefits, but I choose to stay where I am because it is stable. With planning I can meet the needs of my Family. Low income doesn’t need to mean starvation and filth. Low income people need to take responsibility for themselves: learn to garden, fish, hunt, save your income for heat, water, and other housing expenses. Eat well at home with home grown and you won’t need government handouts and “Free” meals. I like Walmart: don’t dis the companies that are willing to provide jobs, income, and economic stability to a community.

    1. Another 30 years like the last 30, and we had all better take heed to Kitzi’s post. The fleecing and gradual gutting of the once dynamic middle class consumer market, that beacon on a hill, that bright and shining star, the envy of the world, the most dynamic economic engine this world has ever seen, is slowly being forced to succumb to the downward pressure on wages from “right to work” (for less) policies that would deny workers’ voice at the bargaining table, FTAs that introduce downward pressure on wages from sweatshops abroad, and other measures (tax policy, the subsidization of offshoring corporations (see the fate of Bill S3816; speaks volumes!) that guarantee magnificent profits for “multinationals” but have small businesses that hire USA workers cutting costs to the bone to compete…
      I too am frugal. I have worked a minimum of one full time job and a side business in the construction trades all my life. I grew up in the 50s in an America where if you wanted to find work, you could step in off the street and fill an entry position within a manufacturing plant, a local factory, construction firm- you name it- jobs were there if you wanted to work. And the pay you received was a “decent wage” (my mother worked in a garment sewing factory and worked her way up into a position of “floor-lady”)- her and my father’s construction wages provide a nice middle class home, and modest luxuries as well as family vacations fishing and clamming at the Bay; you know… The American Dream.
      NO MORE!
      Jobs have been offshored to suit the ever increasing desire of the Corporate sector for larger profit margins, while simultaneously exerting pressure for us to abandon our lifestyle and compete with global economies for jobs some call “race to the bottom,” I call getting into a pissing match with a pole cat.
      Yep, we’d all better learn to do with less, sell our homes or face foreclosure and the liquidation of our assets so we can work for less while America, Inc. reaps record profits they park in offshore tax havens.
      My heart goes out to those who don’t have a small plot to plant their vegetable gardens on so they can eat from its bounty, because when we’re all working for 50 cents/hr. what will happen to our neighborhood property values…?

    2. For God’s sake woman, wake up. Walmart is not your friend. Walmart is the largest company in the world and it has reached that status on the backs of people like you, the people willing to accept and work at poverty wage jobs. Look at your coworkers who are risking their jobs to picket Walmart. They would like to rise above the poverty status that Walmart has them trapped into. You may be happy, resigned, to your poverty, but not everyone wants to live that way. The American dream is about getting ahead, not accepting a life of just scraping by. Get a backbone and join your comrades who would like a better life. Walmart is using you.

  3. How many of the low income states are unionized? How many allow teachers’ unions? I know SC is a right to work state without unions. This really sets teachers, and therefore students at a disadvantage because teachers have little power to set limits with unreasonable district and administrative directives.

  4. Maybe NEA could use its new buddy-buddy relationship with Bill Gates to convince him that *this* is where his foundation should be donating its money. And then Bill and Melinda could convince Eli Broad of the same, and then Eli could convince the Waltons, and so forth.

    Once all these ed deformers start putting their billions where it’s actually needed, the problem should disappear in no time at all. That *must* be the reason that NEA was so quick to jump into bed with these people. Well played, NEA. Well played.

  5. A few years ago,as a community college ESL teacher in California, I stopped using a textbook that built its first unit around consumer issues, and exercises that begin with listing everything you bought in the past two months. The whole thing floundered because at least half of the class had bought nothing in the past two months except food and the book.

  6. The widening inequality in America can be traced to policies that have granted corporations unprecedented favor, while pulling the rug out from under our middle class. They include policies that help to incentivize the offshoring of our manufacturing sector (NAFTA, GATT, WTO, and the upcoming TPP some are calling NAFTA on steroids), tax policy (subsidies, carried interest, capital gains rates, itemized deductions, exemptions, write-offs, and other loopholes) that use tax dollars to offset liabilities incurred by setting up shop on foreign soil, right to work (for less) policies that apply more downward pressure on US worker wages, while corporations park their record gains in offshore tax havens. Candidates for sale to the highest bidder (Citizens United vs. The Federal Election Commission), the repeal of Glass-Steagall and the deregulation fever that swept our financial sector leading up to the Sub-prime mortgage disaster of 2008.

    Our Congressional representatives could do a lot of good for our nation and the world if they wrote policy that fortified our middle class, and scrapped the free trade agreements in favor of FAIR TRADE agreements (tariffs on products from nations who exploit their populous with sweatshop labor practices, lax regulations, and human rights laws, or deny them access to our markets altogether). Imagine the cries of outrage from those on the take if we required everyone to become team players and the goal was the reinvestment in the USA? Where’s the incentive now with record gains being realized from the “globalization” and evolution of the business sector into “multinational” conglomerates who’ve managed through the networking of very few “transnational” entities to own 40% of the stocks traded on the world markets and control over 60% of the capital? Too bad for the USA; we’re the world’s biggest economy (but declining) and from the perspective of the elite, we’re merely a market that can and will be fleeced for all she’s worth. The cost in human tragedy and the implications for future generations are none of their concern, but they should and must be a concern for our elected leaders…

  7. The alarming statistic of all of the alarming figures in this study and map is that 36 of the 50 states have a poverty level in public schools of over 40%. I live in Oregon and in looking at all the schools in the OSAA (Oregon Schools Activities Association), a sports federation, I found that private schools have 0% free or reduced lunch recipients in their student population(except for 1 school) and most public schools have 35% or more. The school districts in my county (there are three) all average over 50% free or reduced lunch recipients. However, the good news, if there is any good news is that in the school district in the north part of the county, free breakfasts are given to all students AND free meals are given to all elementary students before they leave for home. That does not include the free or reduced lunches.

    1. We also have this ‘breakfast for all’ program. Please research from where comes the funding. The Walton/Walmart Foundation is funding the one in the next county where there is a higher level of family poverty AND a WalMart where low-wage, no benefit jobs are prevalent. I find it disturbing. I bet they get a tax break for the breakfast breaks for the kids, too.

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