“Without improving the educational support that the nation provides its low-income students – students with the largest needs and usually with the least support – the trends of the last decade will be prologue for a nation not at risk, but a nation in decline.”
Southern Education Foundation, A New Majority – Low Income Students in the South and Nation, October 2013.
Poverty is defined as a lack of monetary resources necessary to meet basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter. Poverty is a pervasive problem that has devastating consequences for children and is associated with physical, emotional and and mental health issues that persist into adulthood. Living in poverty creates trauma for children and makes it extremely difficult for them to focus on school. Students from low-income families often go to underfunded/high-poverty schools and have access to fewer of the resources they desperately need to mitigate the effects of poverty. All children deserve a high-quality, equitable education and the opportunity to reach their full potential. It is a critical issue concerning children’s health and must be addressed in the context of public education.
The overall U.S. poverty rate is estimated to be 12.3% based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest report. The Census Bureau uses a set of income thresholds that vary by family size to determine federal poverty levels (FPL).The FPL is determined using food cost estimates from the 1960s and recent research suggests that most families would need twice the FPL to pay for their basic needs. For 2018, the poverty threshold for a family of 4 is $25,100 for the contiguous 48 states. These numbers, however, do not tell the whole story. There are large disparities in poverty rates among racial and ethnic groups. Poverty rates among African-Americans and Hispanics remain above 20 percent, over double the poverty rate of 9.8 percent for the white, non-Hispanic population. A September 2018 NYT article analyzed the Census Bureau’s 2017 annual report on the poor and suggested that the national recovery that has helped many Americans increase their earnings has, unfortunately, bypassed a large number of the 40 million to 45 million Americans estimated to be living below the federal poverty level. Further, the NYT argued that poor are getting poorer. The poverty threshold in 2017 was $24,858 for a family of four. The percentage of families of living on half that income, in constant dollars, has nearly doubled since 1975, to 5.7 percent from 3.5 percent.
Poverty is always oppressive, but can be even more of a hardship in areas where the cost of living is high and/or local levels of resources and support are low. In many cities where housing costs are exorbitant, housing consumes more than 30-40% of a family’s budget and there is little money left over for food, health care, clothing, and educational resources. At this time, in most cities, minimum wage workers cannot cover the cost of basic necessities such as housing, food and other expenses.
While urban areas often have high rates of concentrated poverty nationally, it is important to acknowledge that poverty exists across the landscape. A recent report found that “Forty-seven percent of urban counties have high rates of child poverty compared with 64 percent of rural counties. A higher percentage of rural students face extreme poverty—when family income is less than half of the poverty line—compared with urban students.”
- Impoverished families in rural areas have less access to essential services, such as education programs for students with disabilities.
- Chronic underfunding of rural public schools contributes to low salaries, benefits, and lack of access to professional development. In addition, having to prepare multiple subjects for various grade-levels means that teachers cannot provide as much individual attention.
- Rates of rural poverty are on the rise. Currently, over half of the rural student population comes from a low-income family.
Children continue to be one of the most poverty endangered groups in the nation, with approximately 19% classified as poor, or from families with incomes at or below 100% of the poverty threshold. While it manifests itself in all age groups, poverty disproportionately affects children. Twenty-two percent of children are classified as near poor, or from families with income levels between 100% and 199% of poverty thresholds. Troubling disparities in poverty rates exist amongst America’s children. 34% of African American children, 12% of Asian and Pacific Islander children, 28% of Latino children and 12% of non-hispanic white children are living in poverty.
A recent report from The Annie E. Casey Foundation, the KIDS COUNT Data Book, found “As a result of generational inequities and systemic barriers, children of color face hurdles to success on many indicators. African-American children were significantly more likely to live in single-parent families and high-poverty neighborhoods. American Indian children were three times as likely to lack health insurance and more than twice more likely to live in neighborhoods with more limited resources as the average child. Finally, Latino children were the most likely to live with a head of household who lacks a high school diploma and to not be in school when they are young. Latinas also have the highest teen birth rate.”
A deeper dive of child poverty demonstrates that poverty rates are even worse for the nation’s youngest kids, with a high rate of racial and ethnic discrepancy. The latest Census numbers indicate that in 2017, one in five infants and toddlers (19.9 percent of children ages birth through two years) were poor. A report from Child Trends found that nearly 1 in 3 black infants and toddlers (32.7 percent), and more than 1 in 4 Hispanic infants and toddlers (27.3 percent) lived in poverty, compared to approximately 1 in 9 white, non-Hispanic infants and toddlers (11.8 percent). The report further illustrated that the most dramatic disparities are among infants (up to one year of age). The overall percentage of infants living in poverty significantly increased between 2016 and 2017 from 17.2 percent to 20.2 percent, the largest increases were among black and Hispanic infants.
Additionally, it is important to remember that poverty estimates do not include individuals experiencing homelessness because census surveys are sent to households and therefore exclude those without permanent housing. One recent report suggests that the US census failed to count almost 1 million children younger than 5. The census historically undercounts children of color as well as low-income and immigrant families. Not only does this skew our view of poverty in this country, but it drastically under funds vital services that rely on accurate counts. Further, census numbers are used to draw legislative districts, which impacts what policies and issues are addressed and funded.
Clearly poverty is a distressing problem with major implications for the nations youngest residents. The effects of poverty begin early and can last a lifetime.
How Does Poverty Impact Children?
Children born into poverty are statistically likely to suffer from a lack of education and resources with effects that continue through adulthood. Children from low-income homes are more likely to experience food, housing and energy insecurity. They are more likely to suffer from poor nutrition and inadequate healthcare. When they do become ill, it takes longer for them to recover. Poverty tends to be concentrated in neighborhoods where stress and social isolation are prevalent and there is also likely to be a lack of much-needed social resources. Children in low-income and minority neighborhoods are more likely to be exposed to toxic stress, such as witnessing or experiencing violence, the death of a parent, or having a parent who is incarcerated. Prolonged exposure to toxic stress increases risk for mental and physical health risks that continue through their adult lives. A report from Child Trends found that “Neighborhoods whose residents are predominately poor or from a minority racial or ethnic group are more likely to have environmental conditions that pose a risk to children’s health. These include risks outside the home, such as poor air quality from nearby industrial sources or proximity to highways. And they include hazards associated with older and deteriorating housing, such as mold, pest infestations, peeling lead paint, and lead pipes.” They are also less likely to have access to a safe place to play, a critical component of child development.
The toxic stress these kids suffer affects their school performance and their very ability to learn. This transfers to their academic setting and can cause educators to experience secondary traumatic stress. Because poverty tends to be geographically concentrated, the effects of poverty are compounded by being surrounded by peers also experiencing high levels of trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). These factors negatively impact children’s well-being. Childhood trauma reduces a child’s ability to come to school ready to learn, engage and work towards graduation and a productive future. Eric Jensen, author of Teaching With Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do About It notes “A large number of students coming to school from poverty live in a chronic state of stress, with symptoms mimicking those of ADHD…They get labeled as discipline problems, when really, they are living under chronic stress.”
Impacts of poverty that directly affect a child’s performance in school.
- According to recent research, the cognitive, emotional, mental, and physical consequences of food insecurity and poor nutrition, follow children into the classroom, often resulting in poor academic performance.
- Researchers have linked housing instability with poor educational achievement, caused by prolonged absenteeism, changing schools frequently and disruption of a child’s environment.
- Chronic under nutrition harms the cognitive development of young children during critical periods of rapid brain growth, actually changing the fundamental neurological architecture of the brain and central nervous system.
- Children experiencing food-insecurity have worse educational outcomes and achievement scores.
- Children experiencing food insecurity have more social and behavioral problems because they feel poorly, have less energy for complex social interactions, and cannot adapt as effectively to environmental stresses.
- Observing violence and family conflict is correlated with increased depressive symptoms during high school and lower educational achievement and lower attendance rates.
- Racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected by poverty and neighborhood violence. Schools with a high percentage of low-income students and/or students of color tend to have fewer resources, spend less on salaries of school staff, lack adequate instructional materials, and have worse physical building conditions.
- Students with the least access to health care are 2.2 times less likely to achieve education goals than their more affluent peers.
- Children from low-income backgrounds tend to have less access to healthcare and worse health outcomes than their wealthier peers. This can result in chronic absenteeism and a higher likelihood of repeating a grade.
- Further, a UCLA study of educational opportunities in California high schools noted, “teachers reported that 3-4 times more students in High Poverty Schools than in Low Poverty Schools experience a variety of economic and social stressors that impact earning time, such as unstable housing, hunger, and lack of access to medical or dental care. On any given day, there is a 39% chance that these stressors affect learning time in a High Poverty School classroom compared to a 13% chance in a Low Poverty School classroom.”
How does poverty affect school funding?
While low-wealth counties receive supplemental school funding, it is woefully inadequate in meeting the challenges of poverty’s impact on learning. The complex funding formula for North Carolina’s public schools demonstrates the disparity in county revenue across the state. While some counties, like Wake and Mecklenburg exceed the state’s average wealth, other counties, like Edgecombe and Bertie, fall far below.
The Public School Forum of NC recently reported that “The spending gap between the top-ten spending and bottom-ten spending counties has grown from $1,094 in 1997 to the current gap of $2,364 per student. Significantly, this gap has widened every year since 2011 and 18 of the past 20 years.” All of North Carolina’s real public education funding declines reflects the state’s ongoing prioritizing of tax cuts for the wealthiest citizens over investments in the people and the future of this state.
In the most recent North Carolina Budget Adjustments, Section 38.8 authorizes cities in North Carolina to use local property taxes to fund any public school located within their localities. This could include charters, lab schools, and any other publicly funded entity. It appears to address a deficiency in HB 514, a bill that allowed for the creation of charters in the suburbs of Charlotte. HB514 will drastically alter the way schools could be funded. It could further the divide between have and have not schools by allowing cities to supplement funds for certain schools. High poverty areas will not be able to provide supplements.
What does child poverty look like in North Carolina?
- Almost half of North Carolina’s children live in poor or low-income households
- 1 in 5 children live in food insecure households
- 20.9% of children in North Carolina live in households with incomes below the 2017 poverty line
- North Carolina is ranked 40th in the US in terms of Child Poverty according to the most recent estimates
- North Carolina was found to be one of the states in which children had the lowest chances of rising out of poverty
- One third live in households that spend more than 30% on housing
- There is a high degree of geographical disparity in poverty rates, from a low of 11% to a high of 43%
- 14% live in high-poverty neighborhoods and therefor are more likely to experience violence, crime and other adverse childhood experiences
- Students living in poverty or homelessness, or with other social vulnerabilities, are significantly stressed and traumatized
- African American children were twice as likely to live in poor or low-income homes as white peers
- One in three children live in homes with a high housing cost burden, defined as more than 30% of monthly income spent on housing expenses. Higher housing costs can cause families to spend less on health care (even if children covered, parents forego coverage to save money) and increase rates of food insecurity
- According to the North Carolina Child Health Report Card, one in seven children live in high poverty neighborhoods (14%). African American, American Indian, and Latina children are more likely to live in concentrated poverty than their non-Hispanic White peers. Children who live in high poverty neighborhoods are more likely to suffer poor physical and mental health outcomes and to be exposed to violence and crime
What does child health look like in NC?
According to the North Carolina Child Health Report Card 2018:
- North Carolina ranks 42nd in the nation for infant mortality
- Only 50 public NC school districts met the recommended school nurse ratio of 1:750 children
- There is one school nurse for every 1,072 children in North Carolina public schools
- 43.5% of children are covered by public health insurance
- 22.6% of children live in food-insecure households
- Rates of depression have continued to rise among adolescents, and nearly one in ten North Carolina high school students attempted suicide in 2015
- Hispanic and American Indian parents are less likely to have health insurance than other races
- 96% of children in NC have some type of health insurance coverage but with high deductibles and co-pays for doctor visits or medications, they have little actual coverage
- Low-income students and students of colors are much less likely than their white and more affluent peers to attend and complete college.
How does poverty impact education in North Carolina?
While a number of challenges accompany low-income households, here are some of the most glaring physical problems: substandard housing, inadequate nutrition, unsafe neighborhoods, lack of access to health care and lack of support at home. Recent studies have shown “Students in high poverty schools have less experienced instructors, less access to high level science, math, and advanced placement courses, and lower levels of state and local spending on instructors and instructional materials.” This puts these students, who are coming to school with higher needs, at a distinct disadvantage from their more affluent peers. Students from high poverty backgrounds need support and extra resources to make up for the educational resources and opportunities they are not afforded, and often just the opposite occurs. About two-thirds of students in North Carolina receive free or reduced-price school lunch. Additionally, schools in North Carolina are becoming increasingly segregated by race, ethnicity and economics, which further compounds problems by concentrating high-needs populations.
The NC General Assembly passed the Excellent Public Schools Act as part IX of its Appropriations Act of 2013. Section 9.4 of this Act calls for the annual awarding of individual A – F school performance grades based on test results (end-of-grade, end-of-course, graduation rate, college/workplace readiness measures) and school growth as measured by SAS EVAAS (Education Value-Added Assessment System). Eighty percent of the school grade is based on test result and the remaining twenty percent is based on school growth. The most recent results show that these school grades continue to be strongly correlated to family income levels. Schools with greater poverty earned fewer A/A+NG’s and B’s and earned more C’s, D’s, and F’s than schools with less poverty. Nearly ninety-eight percent of schools that received an F grade had 41% or more poverty. In schools with more than 81% low income students, 69% received a D or F grade. Only 1.7% of schools with less than 20% low income student populations received D or F grades.
Can high-quality pre-K make a difference for children who live in poverty?
Evidence overwhelmingly supports high-quality pre-Kindergarten programs as a means of preparing the highest-risk children for success in grades K-12. There are numerous benefits to high-quality pre-K; 123 studies across four decades of research found that by third grade, one-third of the achievement gap can be closed by early education. Children who attend preschool gain confidence by learning the expectations and routines of school through close communication with other children. Pre-K is a place where children learn to socialize, make decisions, interact with others, and negotiate—all of which are important to child development and children who attend Pre-K programs are more self-sufficient in the future. Children who went to preschool were consistently employed, more likely to have full-time jobs, less likely to rely on public assistance, resulting in overall more positive future outcomes. They are also more likely to have a savings account, and own a house and a car.
Recent data shows that 52% of young children, ages 3 and 4 are not in school. When children start school at a disadvantage, it can be very hard for them to catch up later.
Solving the problem of child poverty
Public education cannot alone solve the problem of poverty. But clearly, schools have a significant role to play in helping children living in low-income families to excel—in school and in life. In the report, Ending Child Poverty Now, the Children’s Defense Fund suggests that it is possible to reduce child poverty by as much as 60 percent by investing in programs “that increase employment, make work pay, and ensure children’s basic needs are met, and level the playing field for poor children.” The report further suggests “To reduce child poverty long term, children also need access to affordable, comprehensive physical and behavioral health care, affordable high-quality early development and learning opportunities, high performing schools and colleges, and families and neighborhoods free from violence.”
Research suggests that it is critical to mitigate the effects of child poverty as early in life as possible. Income-related gaps in cognitive skills can be seen in children as young as nine months of age, and without intervention, will persist for a lifetime. By age four, children living in low-income households are less likely to recognize letters, count, or write their name than their wealthier counterparts. As previously mentioned, ensuring that all children have access to high-quality NC pre-K is one piece of the solution.
In grades K-5, adequate funding for teacher assistants — particularly in the lower (K-3) grades—is needed to provide critical one-on-one instruction time to ensure that at-risk children are reading by third grade. In addition, schools that serve low-income students should be staffed with critical support personnel, including guidance counselors, psychologists, nurses, social workers and literacy specialists who are experts in helping children deal with the challenges of poverty that impact their success in school. Finally, many children living in low-income households do not have access to technology and other support structures at home. It is therefore imperative that textbooks and other instructional resources be made available to low-income students. A study by the Urban Institute notes, “Compared with people never poor as a child, those poor for half their childhoods are nearly 90 percent more likely to enter their 20s without completing high school and are four times more likely to have a teen premarital birth (controlling for race, parents’ education at birth, family characteristics, and other factors).” Children living in poverty need support at all stages of school, especially in regard to helping kids stay in school and increasing graduation rates.
Barriers to addressing poverty in schools in NC
Continued underfunding by the state legislature severely limits the ability to provide the support and assistance children living in poverty so desperately need. North Carolina ranked 39th in the United States in 2017. NC is spending $9,528 per student compared to the national average of $11,934. Teacher salaries in North Carolina are 37th in the U.S and 6th out of 12 southern states. The average NC teacher salary was $50,861 in 2017-2018, about $9,600 less than national average of $60,483. In the most recent budget, little investment was made to expand school resources with the most recent budget adjustments. Allotments for teaching assistants, textbooks, At-Risk student services and more are still below 2008-2009 levels when adjusted for inflation. We cannot address poverty without proper resources inside the school building and community resources such as health care and livable wages. Further we must have adequate staffing and fair compensation for our teachers and other support staff/educators. It should be noted that our state has experienced several natural disasters recently. Poverty, as a preexisting condition, significantly impacts how families living in poverty can deal with a natural disaster. Natural disasters also push families who are on the edge of the economy into poverty as they lose their jobs or access to their jobs during a weather-related disaster and often miss a lot of school and become further behind academically.
A variety of privatization schemes take valuable, vital resources from traditional public school and siphon them away to charter and voucher schools. Privatization of public schools refers to efforts by policy makers to shift public education funds into the private sector. A 2017 study by UCLA, demonstrated charter schools are more segregated than traditional public schools and the share of minority charter students has declined over time. In addition, the burgeoning numbers of charters drive increasing amounts of segregation in traditional public schools, as middle class, mostly white students leave their district schools.
NC charters also serve lower proportions of low-income students than traditional public schools. A little more than half the students come from low-income families at traditional public schools. In charters, however, only one in three students are low-income. Original legislation required racial and ethnic diversity in charter schools, but a 2013 law dropped the mandate. Charter schools are required only to “make efforts” to “reasonably reflect the racial and ethnic composition” in the area where the school is located but there is no mechanism for doing so and no consequence for failing to achieve a resemblance to the LEA. In addition, Public assets can become private assets: A failing charter can be taken over by a new entity, instead of being closed. The school’s assets would then be transferred to the new operator, not back to the state.
A recent report by the Schott Foundation shows how far the damaging privatization movement has progressed across the nation. The report gives North Carolina a grade of F for its commitment to public schools and public school students “by holding it accountable for abandoning civil rights protections, transparency, accountability, and adequate funding in a quest for “private” alternatives.” Children who are harder to serve, whose families are not capable of advocating for them, and who are the most expensive to educate may be the only students left in traditional public schools if the current trends to privatize continue. Enriching private interests at the expense of our neediest children is the natural outcome of the privatization movement, and it is undermining our democracy and the civil and human rights of children to a sound, basic education.
North Carolina is one of 14 states that has not yet passed legislation to expand Medicaid. Current estimates suggest approximately 1 million people, many of whom are employed, are without healthcare coverage. If they were to enact legislation, approximately 500,000 more people would be covered. As it stands now, an adult without children is not eligible for Medicaid. This lack of coverage contributes to the high number of pregnant women who do not receive prenatal care and subsequently give birth Low-income adults who do not have children are not currently eligible for Medicaid. As a result, many expectant mothers do not receive appropriate prenatal care. Consequently, the infant mortality rate in North Carolina is increasing.
Summary: Studies show, being poor at birth is a strong predictor of future poverty status. Thirty-one percent of white children and 69 percent of black children who are poor at birth go on to spend at least half their childhoods living in poverty. We have an obligation to fund the programs and resources that are demonstrated to help all children realize their fullest potential and bring equity to education and beyond.
- Poverty has been increasing in areas of concentrated ethnic and racial minorities
- Poverty’s impact in rural areas is even greater, due to lower local tax revenue
- Out of the 100 counties in NC in 2014, the 20 highest poverty rates in the state were all in rural counties
- Overall, schools with higher poverty had the lowest school achievement grades
- Participation in high-quality pre-K significantly improves a child’s chance of success in school; the state funds approximately 29,000 NC Pre-K spots annually; around 7,000 children remain on the waiting list each year.
- Physical factors including substandard housing and inadequate nutrition directly affect a child’s performance in school
- A quality public education can make a significant, positive impact on children living in poverty
- Parents with untreated medical conditions are not able to properly care for their children. Children from homes with healthy parents tend to be healthier themselves. We support Medicaid expansion to help children and their families. Healthier families help children come to school ready to learn!
Conclusion: The effects of childhood poverty can last a lifetime. Children living in poverty are exposed to significantly more adverse childhood experiences such as delayed brain development, violence in the home and/or community, hunger and homelessness, school failure and have more negative interactions with the criminal justice system. Children born into poverty are likely to remain in poverty. They struggle to ever attain the educational and economical tools needed to move up and out of poverty. This is a moral imperative for our State.
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The New Normal: Poverty Driven by Extreme Weather, Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, November, 2018, https://spotlightonpoverty.org/spotlight-exclusives/the-new-normal-poverty-driven-by-extreme-weather/
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Maya Brennan, “The Impacts of Affordable Housing on Education: A Research Summary,” Center for Housing Policy (May 2011).
Natasha K. Bowen and Gary L. Bowen, “Effects of Crime and Violence in Neighborhoods and Schools on the School Behavior and Performance of Adolescents,” University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Jeannette R. Ickovics, Amy Carroll-Scott, Susan M. Peters, Marelene Schwartz, et. al, “Health and Academic Achievement: Cumulative Effects on Health Assets on Standardized Test Scores Among Urban Youth in the United States,” Journal of School Health (2012).
John Rogers and Nicole Mirra, “It’s About Time: Learning Time and Educational Opportunity in California High Schools,” UCLA/IDEA http://idea.gseis.ucla.edu/projects/its-about-time
Ending Child Poverty Now, Children’s Defense Fund, January 2015 http://www.childrensdefense.org/library/PovertyReport/EndingChildPovertyNow.html
Caroline Ratcliffe and Signe-Mary McKernan, “Child Poverty and Its Lasting Consequence,” The Urban Institute, September 2012, http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/412659-Child-Poverty-and-Its-Lasting-Consequence-Paper.pdf
Last revised 2/8/2019