The Impact of Poverty on Education

The talk is all about the need for a good education. Not just a high school education, but also an education beyond high school. The first baby boomers turn 65 this year (2011), meaning we will lose about 46M skilled workers as these boomers retire through the next 20 years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2020 there will be a 22 percent increase in the number of jobs that require education beyond high school. These are two very good reasons for students to pursue an education and for states to provide adequate funding. The unfortunate news is that in too many cases, the number of students who graduate with at least a high school diploma is declining.

Did you know that one in six public school students attends a high-poverty school — defined as a school where 76 to 100 percent of the student enrollment is eligible for free or reduced-price meals? Did you know that students who attend high-poverty schools perform persistently lower in math and reading achievement and are less likely to attend four-year colleges when compared to their peers in low-poverty schools? Only about 68 percent of 12th-graders in high-poverty schools graduated with a diploma. Even more disheartening is the fact that since 1999-2000, the average percentage of seniors in high-poverty schools who graduated with a diploma has declined by 18 percentage points, from 86 to 68 percent.

It is easy to complain about a lack of funding for schools or a lack of quality in our education system. It is much harder to do anything about the problem. There is no question that having a good education has a profound and positive impact on the individual student, the community, the labor market, the economy, and the country. Not having an adequate education increases unemployment rates and decreases earning potential, meaning a larger percentage of our population falls into the high-poverty category — a category in which the drop-out rate is increasing. It is like being caught on a hamster wheel. Too much blame is being put on a “poor public education system” when so many of the problems are socioeconomic in nature. To “fix” education is going to take a lot more than just funding for schools.