Exploring the Link Between Poverty and Education 


ChildPovertybyStateWe have just passed the 50th anniversary of the U.S. War on Poverty, which was launched by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Yet for the first time in recent history, the majority of children attending U.S. public schools come from low-income families.1 Among these students, 16 million2 live in poverty—meaning an annual income below $23,624 for a family of four2—which can touch almost every aspect of a child’s life. Living in poverty can sap physical and mental health, suppress energy and engagement, and hinder access to learning opportunities.


Poverty—with its widespread effects on learning and well-being—is a multifaceted problem without a simple solution. Although each community may have its own strategies for addressing poverty, all communities must recognize that any attempt to ameliorate the effects of poverty in the classroom must address the whole child.

At the May 6th ASCD Whole Child Symposium, a panel consisting of a superintendent, an education researcher, and ASCD’s executive director Judy Seltz highlighted current research on poverty and education and discussed what lessons we can learn from the now 50-year-old War on Poverty. Understanding the issue is just one element in the process of addressing how poverty can hold back a child’s education. There are steps educators can take to help promote the success of all students. Below are a few ways that educators can ensure that all of their students are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.


Children in poverty have more untreated ear infections and hearing loss issues, experience a higher incidence of asthma, and are exposed to food with lower nutritional value than children from wealthier families.12

Many high-poverty, high-performing schools provide students with on-site access to social workers, physicians, dentists, vision and hearing specialists, and mental health and family counselors.13


High-poverty schools are more likely to struggle with school climate issues such as absenteeism and truancy,14 bullying,13 and other discipline issues.14

Schools can improve school climate by administering student and staff surveys and implementing policies aligned with survey results.


Children in poverty experience greater chronic stress than their more affluent peers, which makes school engagement more challenging.12

Schools can enhance student trust and engagement by providing opportunities for meaningful involvement through advisory periods, small learning environments, and the use of culturally relevant curricula.13


Students in poverty are less likely to have informal relationships with adults, including those across the school community, such as nurses, counselors, and coaches. These relationships are crucial in creating a support network; navigating the college application process; and helping students find volunteer, internship, and work opportunities.7

High-performing, high-poverty schools cultivate these relationships by creating and operating mentorship programs with local staff and volunteers.13


Students in high-poverty schools have less access to rigorous courses in a variety of subjects, including the arts, than their more affluent peers.

High-performing schools provide relevant and challenging coursework through multiple pathways (e.g., Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, dual-enrollment programs) to all interested students and couple these programs with needed supports.15



  1. Southern Education Foundation. (2015). A new majority research bulletin: Low income students now a majority in the nation’s public schools.Retrieved from http://www.southerneducation.org/Our-Strategies/Research-and-Publications/New-Majority-Diverse-Majority-Report-Series/A-New-Majority-2015-Update-Low-Income-Students-Now
  2. Annie E. Casey Foundation. (n.d.). KIDS COUNT data center, 2000–2013. Retrieved from http://datacenter.kidscount.org
  3. American Institutes for Research. The National Center on Family Homelessness. (2015). What is family homelessness?Retrieved from http://www.familyhomelessness.org/children.php?p=ts/
  4. Child Trends Data Bank. (2014). Food insecurity.Retrieved from http://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=food-insecurity
  5. Center on Children and Families at Brookings. (2012). Starting school at a disadvantage: The school readiness of poor children.Retrieved from http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2012/3/19%20school%20disadvantage%20isaacs/0319_school_disadvantage_isaacs.pdf (PDF)
  6. Ronfeldt, M., Loeb, S., & Wykoff, J. (n.d.). How teacher turnover harms student achievement. Retrieved from http://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/6711029.pdf(PDF)
  7. Sparks, S. D. (2015, March 9). Robert Putnam: When did poor kids stop being “our kids”? [Review of the book Our kids: The American dream in crisisby R. D. Putnam.] Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/inside-school-research/2015/03/its_hard_to_make_schools.html
  8. Ronfeldt, M., Loeb, S., & Wykoff, J. (n.d.). How teacher turnover harms student achievement. Retrieved from http://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/6711029.pdf(PDF)
  9. National Center for Education Statistics. (n.d.). Education finance statistic center. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/edfin/Fy11_12_tables.asp
  10. National Assessment of Educational Progress, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment Governing Board, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education (n.d.). The nation’s report card.Retrieved from http://www.nationsreportcard.gov/
  11. Food Research and Action Center. (2010). School meal eligibility.Retrieved from http://frac.org/federal-foodnutrition-programs/national-school-lunch-program/eligibility/
  12. Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2011). Double jeopardy: How third-grade reading skills and poverty influence high school graduation.Retrieved from http://www.aecf.org/resources/double-jeopardy/
  13. Jensen E. (2013, May). How poverty affects classroom engagement. Educational Leadership, 70(8), 24–30. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/may13/vol70/num08/How-Poverty-Affects-Classroom-Engagement.aspx
  14. The Center for New York City Affairs. A better picture of poverty: What chronic absenteeism and risk load reveal about NYC’s lowest-income elementary schools.(2014). Retrieved from http://www.centernyc.org/betterpictureofpoverty/?rq=18%20Risk%20factors
  15. Duncan, A. (2012, April). Prepared remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the report “Arts education in public elementary and secondary schools: 2009–10.”Speech presented at Miner Elementary School, Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/prepared-remarks-us-secretary-education-arne-duncan-report-arts-education-public-elementary-and-secondary-schools-2009-10
  16. (2014). United States whole child snapshot.Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/siteASCD/wholechild/snapshot/2014/National-ASCD-Whole-Child-Snapshot.pdf (PDF)