How Educators Can Address Poverty’s Widespread Effects

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By Melissa Mellor

Twenty-two percent of U.S. children live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level. Such widespread poverty among our nation’s youth is untenable, and its effects on learning are well documented. As ASCD author Eric Jensen notes in his book Teaching with Poverty in Mind, “there is a gulf between poor and well-off children’s performance on just about every measure of cognitive development.”

But poverty influences far more than academic performance. Its pernicious effects touch almost every component of a child’s life, sapping physical and mental health, suppressing attentiveness and engagement, and hindering access to challenging learning opportunities and adults who take a personal interest in their well-being. This is not news to educators who witness poverty’s extensive effects every day and see how those effects dramatically shape students’ readiness to learn.snapshots quote

As ASCD’s 50-state whole child snapshots show, no state is impervious to this problem. Even the state with the lowest child poverty rate for 2013—New Hampshire—has 1 in 10 children who live in poverty. The snapshot data also reveal that kids from low-income families fare poorly compared with their more advantaged peers on multiple measures of well-being and success.

Consider the following:

  • 59 percent of children from low-income families had both medical and dental preventive care visits in the previous year compared with 78 percent of children from the highest-income families.
  • 45 percent of children from low-income families live in a neighborhood with sidewalks, a library, a recreation center, and a park. That percentage rises to 63 percent for the most advantaged children.
  • Student-to-counselor ratios vary dramatically by state and often those states with the highest numbers of at-risk students have the worst ratios. California’s 1,016 to 1 student-to-counselor ratio far exceeds the recommended 250 to 1 ratio, for example.
  • For the high school class of 2012, 72 percent of economically disadvantaged students graduated from high school compared with 86 percent of their more affluent peers—a gap of 14 percentage points.

Poverty—and its effects on learning and well-being—is a profound and multifaceted problem without a simple solution. Given the overwhelming extent and severity of this problem, what can educators do to help address it?

First, educators need to spread the message that although education is a crucial component in addressing the disparities caused by poverty, meeting each child’s diverse needs cannot be done by schools alone. Our children will flourish only when entire communities attend to both the in-school factors and out-of-school influences that affect learning.

Next, educators must work together to raise awareness about poverty in their own communities and the importance of multiple stakeholders working together to identify related needs and solutions.

One way to jumpstart this work in your own community is to use your state’s whole child snapshot as the basis for community-wide conversation and collaboration focused on ameliorating poverty’s effects and helping all children succeed. Such discussions—which should involve a wide range of participants, including parents, educators, policymakers, and community members—could address whether state outcomes are consistent with local conditions; examine additional school-, district-, and community-level data; and consider initial ideas and action steps for supporting the whole child.

Each community will have its own strategies for tackling poverty, but all communities must share one non-negotiable: Helping children overcome poverty is not possible through academic intervention alone. Only when kids are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged will they be able to master the skills and knowledge that will help to make their futures bright.

See the September issue of ASCD’s Policy Points to find 12 ideas for how educators can use the whole child snapshots to inspire their communities’ support for the whole child.