What We Talk About When We Talk About Poverty

By 05/31/2013

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Michael J. Petrilli continues his conversation with Deborah Meier today.

Dear Deborah,

I want to return to the perennial question of poverty as it relates to educational outcomes. One of the main arguments against education reform is that it misdiagnoses the problem. We have big “achievement gaps” in terms of test scores, graduation rates, college-going, and much else, but that”s primarily because of inequities in our society, not because of the failings of our schools—so goes the thinking.

As I indicated in my first post for Bridging Differences, I”m not opposed to tackling these larger issues of poverty and inequality. (Neither are most reformers.) But we”d better have a good understanding of what we”re tackling. I would argue that clarity is sorely lacking.

Is the issue really poverty, per se? The fact that many families in the U.S. don”t have enough income to provide the advantages that other children enjoy? If so, are we satisfied with delineating the problem with the poverty line (currently about $20,000 for a family of three)? That qualifies 23 percent of all children (as of 2011), up from 18 percent before the Great Recession.

Or should we include children a little bit above the poverty line—from families that are “near-poor” or “working-poor,” too? Say, up to 185 percent of poverty, the cut-off for eligibility for a reduced-price lunch? That captures 48 percent of all U.S. children (as of 2011).

Then again, standard poverty measures are imperfect. They don”t take into account certain services or benefits that low-income families receive, such as food stamps, Medicaid, or the Earned Income Tax Credit. (Poverty counts just look at income from work or from transfer payments.) If you consider those factors, poverty rates drop a few points.

And are we talking about kids who are born into poverty, or spend most of their lives in poverty, or are in poverty for just a few years? The “child poverty rate” is for any given point in time, but it masks these important differences. Several studies looked at children born way back in the late 1960s and early 1970s (my generation!). They found that about 25 percent of white children, and an astounding 79 percent of black children, were poor for at least a year during their childhoods. But long-term poverty was much rarer: One percent of white children and 30 percent of black children were poor for at least two-thirds of their childhoods. These children in “long-term poverty” were also more likely to be in “deep poverty,” meaning their families” incomes were below half the poverty line. (If you do the math, those kids accounted for about 5 percent of the total.)

Not surprisingly, other studies have found that it”s the children in long-term and deep poverty who fare the worst on a variety of indicators, while those in poverty for a relatively short amount of time tend to do better.

So when you and your colleagues say that “poverty is the problem,” which kind of poverty are you talking about? Long-term poverty? Short-term poverty? Deep poverty? Near poverty? Fifty percent of the kids? Five percent?

Even more importantly, is it really poverty that”s the problem? Are we sure poverty”s not a proxy for other issues?

If it”s just poverty—not enough money—then it”s fairly easy to solve: We could just give poor families extra cash in order to make them not poor. We could do this by bringing back traditional welfare, or enlarging the Earned Income Tax Credit, or raising the minimum wage.

However, and experience indicate that those sorts of “income supports” might help children at the margins, but they won”t make much of a dent in achievement gaps or the real inequities in our society. That”s because the most disadvantaged children—especially those who are born poor, and stay poor, for most of their childhoods—have the following, more deep-seated challenges in common:

• Most were born to single mothers, and their fathers have been absent from the start, or by the time they turn two or three;

• Most of their mothers were teenagers or in their early 20s when they gave birth;

• Most of their mothers have very little education—a high school diploma or less–and thus few marketable skills;

• Many of their mothers suffer from mental illness or addiction or both;

If we give these families more money, it would ease their hardships a bit, and the lower levels of stress might help the moms do a better job parenting. They might also be able to afford some educational goods they otherwise couldn”t—marginally better childcare or preschool, or books, or educational games.

But will it erase the huge gaps in early vocabulary development, non-cognitive skill-building, and other essential school readiness tasks between these disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers? Between these kids and their age-mates born into two-parent families? With highly-educated mothers and fathers? With parents who were in their 30s when they started families, instead of their teens?

To believe so, you”d have to put as much faith in cash transfers and social services as some reformers put in schools. You”d have to believe in miracles.

But, you might say, what about the international data? The conventional wisdom says that European countries with more generous social welfare systems don”t have the gaping inequalities we do, and their poor kids, as a result, do much better in school. The reason the U.S. trails internationally is because we don”t do enough to curb poverty, right?

Let”s look at that a bit. It”s true that the standard measures show the U.S. to be an outlier among rich countries in terms of childhood poverty. But these poverty measures are problematic, because they use a relative definition of poverty. They consider families to be poor if they make less than half the median national income. By definition, then, countries with greater inequality will have more poverty. Such measures look at how the pie is divided, but they don”t look at the size of the pie itself.

Absolute measures, on the other hand, take the U.S. poverty threshold, convert it into other currencies, make some adjustments for costs of living, and determine how many people in other countries fall below that line. Here”s what that looks like (at 125 percent the U.S. poverty rate):

Click to enlarge

Source: “Poor People in Rich Nations: The United States in Comparative Perspective,” Timothy Smeeding, 2006

Suddenly America”s child poverty rate looks almost normal, and certainly can”t explain our lackluster international performance on exams. (Note that our poverty rates are almost indistinguishable from Finland”s, everyone”s favorite star performer.)

But if we don”t look so bad when it comes to absolute “income poverty,” we do look very bad when it comes to fatherless families:

Click to enlarge

Source: http://worldfamilymap.org/2013/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/WFM-Table1.pdf.

And also teenage pregnancy:

Click to enlarge

Source: http://www.oecd.org/els/family/SF2.4_Births outside marriage and teenage births – updated 240212.pdf


In conclusion, Deborah, our issue isn”t just poverty, but parenting. We have a whole class of children growing up without fathers, and they are doing terribly. (Black boys in particular.) Traditional “anti-poverty” measures are unlikely to make much of a dent in solving this one.

So what”s left? What we need are “transformational” interventions that interrupt the insidious cycle that turns disadvantaged kids into disadvantaged parents, by giving them the hope, confidence, and skills to find a different path. I can”t think of institutions better positioned to do that than schools. Can you?

—Mike Petrilli

This article originally appeared on the Bridging Differences blog, where Mike Petrilli has been debating Deborah Meier for the last month.

Comment on this article
  • Mark Blitz says:

    Sounds like an investment in preschool for all kids would be a logical next step, then. Right?

  • kc says:

    you should be required to have a license and background check before you’re allowed to have a kid.

    If you can’t take care of yourself….Don’t have kids!!!

  • EB says:

    This needs to be said, and I hope my fellow liberals will join the conversation. Saying that a school has some percentage of kids on FRPL tells you that the school is not super-wealthy, but it doesn’t tell you much else. “Failing” schools are usually heavily populated by kids in deep and persistent poverty; extra income is very helpful for humanitarian reasons, but it does not make the school succeed.

  • EB says:

    And let me add, though, that using children of 2 highly-educated parents who wait until their 30’s to have kids is not the best control group. Those people are outliers. How about 2 moderately well-educated parents who simply wait until they are married and employed?

  • Jeffrey Miller says:

    “So what’s left? What we need are “transformational” interventions that interrupt the insidious cycle that turns disadvantaged kids into disadvantaged parents, by giving them the hope, confidence, and skills to find a different path. I can’t think of institutions better positioned to do that than schools. Can you?”


    The Finns didn’t just work on schools. Or any one part of their society. It also took them decades to make the kinds of changes that resulted in their children performing better than most of the world on standardized tests. Hint: they didn’t achieve through testing or anything else Americans are obsessed with these days. Think about it.

  • Nikki@NationalSocialServices says:

    We all know that proper education is the key to ignorance and poverty as well. But what’s important is the willingness of the people and the community to invest in their own solution. We don’t need to blame and pin point each others fault, but we can help each other by sharing anything that we think it’ll help to make a difference.
    Have you heard of a non profit organization called “Room to Read”? They started out as nothing but just a goal to reach out and give children (of Nepal) books to read.

    Yes, they donate books, raise a fund and reach out, and they won’t stop especially to those people who reach out in their willingness to invest for themselves.

    Nikki Schlacter
    National Social Services | Online Help Directory in the US

  • Jas says:

    Black, fatherless homes are the problem? Really. I was with you until you said parenting and pointed to fathers missing in homes.
    What does that matter when the unemployment rate for Black males is super high, one in three Black males are in prision, and Black males are graduating high school and college in dismal numbers?
    How does a Black male, growing up in today’s society where there is an obvious disregard for their life (too many young Black males killed on the streets by gun violence by peers AND police), achieve academically and socially enough to transcend the negative messages that society sends???
    Similar to generational wealth, which is passed down, those in deep poverty pass down generational poverty. It’s very sad.

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