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Education, Poverty, and Segregation

“Education, Poverty, and Segregation.” CYS 2016.


According to a recent study by the Southern Education Foundation, the United States just passed a new milestone in the poverty of its public school children:

The foundation’s report tracks student poverty through eligibility for free and reduced-price lunches, which are available to students with family incomes at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level. Although eligibility for such programs is an imperfect measure for poverty, it is often used by federal agencies as a close proxy. About 33 percent of public school students in 1995 and about 38 percent in 2000 were from low-income families. But, for the first time since the beginning of tracking, the share surged to over 50 percent in 2013, after the Great Recession.

What does poverty look like for schoolchildren? Sonya Romero-Smith, who has been a teacher for two decades in Albuquerque, describes for the Washington Post her daily routine:

When they first come in my door in the morning, the first thing I do is an inventory of immediate needs: Did you eat? Are you clean? A big part of my job is making them feel safe.

Romero-Smith recently became a foster mother to two girls who attend her school, who had been homeless.

Getting rid of bedbugs, that took us a while. Night terrors, that took a little while. Hoarding food, flushing a toilet and washing hands, it took us a little while. You spend some time with little ones like this and it’s gut wrenching….These kids aren’t thinking, ‘Am I going to take a test today?’ They’re thinking, ‘Am I going to be okay?’

Poverty in the United States is not spread out evenly, but is concentrated in certain areas where the majority of residents are poor. These areas of concentrated poverty are often found in large cities, but are also common in rural areas, particularly in Southern and Western states.

share of children from low-income families in public schools

This means that a child from a low-income family is very likely to attend a school where most children are also poor. Furthermore, black and Latino families are disproportionately more likely to live in high-poverty areas.

Reed Jordan at the Urban Institute explains why it’s particularly hard for students at schools in low-income areas to get a good education:

Why should we be concerned about concentrated poverty? Because high-poverty schools tend to lack the educational resources—like highly qualified and experienced teachers, low student-teacher ratios, college prerequisite and advanced placement courses, and extracurricular activities—available in low-poverty schools. These inequitable educational offerings are compounded by the toll of poverty itself on the physical and psychological development of children. As a result, high-poverty schools are tasked with a tremendous load and are often unable to provide either the quality of education or the additional resources and supports needed to help students in low-income families succeed. This is concentrated disadvantage: the children who need the most are concentrated in schools least likely to have the resources to meet those needs.

In the long run, this means that there is little economic mobility across generations in areas of concentrated poverty. Children born in very poor neighborhoods are likely to see their children and grandchildren grow up under the same conditions. According to Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at New York University who studies intergenerational mobility,

The challenge of urban poverty, from this perspective, is not only that poverty has become more concentrated over time or that racial segregation has persisted, but that the same families have experienced life in the nation’s poorest neighborhoods over multiple generations.

Sharkey describes how growing up in a very poor neighborhood can directly influence a person’s chance of success:

Where children live affects the quality of the schools they attend, the children with whom they interact on a daily basis, the quality of the air that they breathe, and the level of violence around them….Research from developmental psychology, neuroscience, public health, economics and sociology has converged around the finding that early life experiences and environments have lasting effects on children’s developmental, academic, and economic outcomes later in life. The effects of exposure to disadvantaged, chaotic or violent neighborhood environments do not disappear as a child moves into adulthood, but linger on to affect individuals’ mental health, economic opportunities, educational attainment and resources and skills for parenting.

In describing the data on racial segregation and school poverty, Reed Jordan sees an all-too-familiar picture of “separate and unequal” education:

In some metropolitan areas, the racial concentration of school poverty is so severe that black and white students effectively attend two different school systems: one for middle- and upper-middle-income white students, and the other for poor students and students of color.

This is certainly true in Chicago, where 75 percent of black students attend high-poverty schools compared with less than 10 percent of white students. The same dual system exists for the 75 percent of black students in Milwaukee who attend high-poverty schools compared with 10 percent of their white peers. In fact, racial inequity is a defining feature of almost all midwestern and northeastern metropolitan school systems.

Recent studies have found that educational disadvantages for black students are exacerbated by measurably biased
patterns of funding. An analysis of state funding to school districts in Pennsylvania found that schools received considerably more state money the whiter their student populations were. Schools that were almost entirely white received almost twice as much as schools that were mostly black and had the same rates of poverty:


district funding by racial composition and poverty level

If state officials can’t even be trusted to distribute school funding without racial bias, it can be hard to be optimistic about policy solutions. Nonetheless, researchers have identified several ideas that could have a meaningful impact on concentrated poverty.

The most sweeping solution would be to change zoning policies in wealthy areas. Ultimately, poor people are concentrated in poor areas because they can’t afford to live anywhere else. Wealthy neighborhoods are literally exclusive: it’s expensive to live there because local policymakers can restrict the supply of new housing being built. If a school district contains only large, expensive single-family houses, then no children from low-income families will go to school there.

Paul Jargowsky, director of the Center for Urban Research and Urban Education at Rutgers, describes how exclusionary zoning works:

Say a developer wants to build small homes that would be financially feasible for poor families in the suburbs. They’re often blocked by city governments from doing so. Jargowsky has served as an expert witness to fight against these types of discriminatory policies.

So what can be done about this? Jargowsky said there’s not a lot of political will to change anything. Another obstacle is that a lot of people aren’t even aware of zoning issues. And, of course, people who want to maintain the status quo are willing to spend big to make sure that happens, he said.

When affordable housing isn’t available elsewhere, poor families find themselves clustered together….Jargowsky proposes a simple solution: Stop blocking developers who want to build low-income homes outside of high-poverty neighborhoods.

A related solution would be to redraw school district boundaries. As illustrated in a detailed national map compiled by EdBuild, school districts are often gerrymandered to keep wealthy and poor areas separated. In other words, state governments across the country make a deliberate effort to keep local school districts segregated.

If changing the demographics of wealthy neighborhoods is politically unfeasible, an alternative approach is to invest more resources in areas of concentrated poverty. Policymakers at the local, state or federal level could increase their support for early childhood education and afterschool programs in the poorest school districts.

Education journalist Dana Goldstein describes an innovative solution. A recent program called the Talent Transfer Initiative offered highly-rated, experienced teachers a lump sum of $20,000 to transfer to a high-poverty school. The program found that elementary school teachers who transferred outperformed their peers by a significant margin. Furthermore, most of these teachers opted to remain in their new schools even after the program ended.

While these new ideas are encouraging, the reality for now is that America’s schools have not been successful in providing opportunity for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Despite all the educational innovations and reforms of recent years, no one has succeeded in overcoming the challenges facing low-income students. Sean F Reardon, an education researcher at Stanford University, says that:

We can look at every poor district in the United States and see if there are any that are doing reasonably well, where kids are performing at least at the national average. And the answer is virtually none. You can find isolated schools that are doing…better than you would predict. But the weight of socioeconomic disadvantage–or, on the other side of the scale, of advantage–is really quite big. We don’t have much evidence of places that have been systematically successful when they serve very large populations of low-income students.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Think about the schools you attended: were the other students mostly well-off, mostly poor, or a mix? How do you think that affected your education?
  2. What do you think it would take to see affordable housing built in exclusive suburbs with good schools?
  3. Sean Reardon at Stanford argues that we’ll never be able to solve the problems of concentrated poverty in schools through education policy alone: he says the only real solution is to end residential segregation. Do you agree?


  1. For the first time, a majority of public school children in the United States live in poverty.
  2. Poverty is concentrated in certain areas, meaning that some schools are attended almost entirely by poor children whereas other schools have none. This makes it hard for the school system to provide a decent education for its poorest students.
  3. Concentrated poverty is often motivated by racial discrimination in housing policies. Furthermore, school districts that are mostly white sometimes receive disproportionately more funding than majority black districts.
  4. Solving this problem would require either changing housing policy to reduce concentrations of poverty or investing a lot more money in the poorest districts.

Peter Bass
© 2018 CYS


Laura Bliss (2015). “How School Districts Seal Their Students Into Poverty.” The Atlantic CItylab, July 22.

Janie Boschma and Ronald Brownstein (2016). “The Concentration of Poverty in American Schools.” The Atlantic, February 29.

Sarah, Butrymowicz (2015), “Why High-Poverty Schools Need Not Be ‘A Fact of Life.’” Education Writers Association, November 18.

Richard Florida (2013). “The Persistent Geography of Disadvantage.” The Atlantic Citylab, July 25.

Dana Goldstein (2013), “What Happens When Great Teachers Get $20,000 to Work in Low-Income Schools?” Slate, November 25.

Lyndsey Layton (2015). “Majority of US public school students are in poverty.” The Washinton Post, January 16.

Tanvi Misra (2015). “The Stark Inequality of US Public Schools, Mapped.” The Atlantic Citylab, May 14.

Reed Jordan (2015). “A closer look at income and race concentration in public schools.” Urban Institute, May 13.

Reed Jordan (2015). “High-poverty schools undermine education for children of color.” Urban Institute, May 20.

Richard Rothstein (2013). “Why Our School Are Segregated.” Educational Leadership, 70.8: 50-55.

Gillian B. White (2015). “The Data Are Damning: How Race Influences School Funding.” The Atlantic, September 30.

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