Exposing the Effects of Child Poverty Hidden in Plain Sight

While there is widespread agreement that family poverty is highly correlated with low achievement at school, it is a difficult issue to discuss because people immediately become defensive.  “Don’t tell me poor kids can’t learn,” people say.  Many children living in poor families do thrive at school. But life circumstances present challenges that too often interfere.  Here is long-time education researcher David Berliner explaining that, in the aggregate, poverty lowers school attainment:  “For reasons that are hard to fathom, too many people believe that in education the exceptions are the rule… These stories of triumph by individuals who were born poor, or success by educators who changed the lives of their students, are widely believed narratives…  But in fact, these are simply myths that help us feel good to be American… But the general case is that poor people stay poor and that teachers and schools serving impoverished youth do not often succeed in changing the life chances for their students.”  There is much to read this week that elucidates the kind of crisis poverty imposes on poor families and explains how families’ circumstances affect children in school.

What would it be like to raise children while living in extreme poverty? In their new book $2.00 A Day, Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer follow some of the 1.5 million American households (including roughly 3 million children) living without any cash income—only food stamps. (This blog covered Edin and Shaefer’s book in January when it was published.)  Too often families in extreme poverty cannot find anywhere they can afford the rent:  “Every family whose story is told in this book has doubled up with kin or friends at some point, because their earnings haven’t been sufficient to maintain a place of their own. While living with relatives sometimes offers strength and uplift, it can also prove toxic for the most vulnerable in our society, ending in sexual, physical, or verbal abuse.  The trauma from this abuse is sometimes a precipitating factor in a family’s fall into $2-a-day poverty, or the calamity that keeps them in such a state for far too long.” (p. 73)

Edin and Shaefer report that parents discover that the jobs they find—and they do work—are hard to keep and almost impossible to manage for single parents due to unpredictable schedules that change from day to day:  “Work schedules are often variable, meaning that the days and times you are required to work can shift from day to day or week to week.  To get enough hours at any given job, an employee has to be flexible… Even more challenging for workers than an unpredictable schedule are abrupt ups and downs in the number of hours a worker gets.  Many employers with a large low-wage workforce engage in a practice termed ‘work loading,’ which responds to downturns in demand with informal layoffs: employers keep employees on the payroll but reduce their scheduled hours, sometimes even to zero…. The extreme of this phenomenon is the growing prevalence of ‘on-call’ shifts. In recent years, many service sector employers have begun requiring workers to be available on certain days and at certain times even when they aren’t working… If they are not needed, they get no compensation for the time spent on call.” (pp. 43-46)

A new book by Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond, just published this week, will help us learn more about the shortage of affordable housing and the effect of serial evictions on families.  Desmond is an ethnographer who studied evictions in Milwaukee as the topic of his Ph.D. dissertation.  This blog covered a short excerpt published in the New Yorker from Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.  And currently the New York Review of Books features a review of Desmond’s book by Jason DeParle, a respected reporter whose own noted book  American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare (published in 2004), traced the growth of extreme poverty among Milwaukee’s families following the 1996 elimination of the federal welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

Reading Desmond’s book will be essential, but one should also attend to DeParle’s insightful article: “It is odd that the shortage of low-income housing gets little attention, even among experts on the left. Decent affordable shelter is a primal human need, and its disappearance is one of the most troubling results of growing inequality. Housing patterns shape more visible issues like schools, jobs, and crime… A major point to keep in mind is that the US spends huge sums to subsidize housing for people who are well-off (through the mortgage interest deduction and other tax breaks) while most poor renters get nothing: only one of four low-income households that qualify for assistance gets it.” “Part of the message is that evictions are much more common than previously thought.  Desmond’s survey found that more than one in eight Milwaukee renters faced a forced move in the course of three years… The numbers sound extraordinary but not in light of the shelter burdens that low-income households carry.  The government says that rent and utilities are affordable if they consume no more than 30 percent of a household’s income.  Analyzing census data, Desmond finds that the majority of poor households pay over 50 percent of their income for shelter and more than a quarter pay over 70 percent.  Among the tenants in housing court, a third spend at least 80 percent.  Evicted‘s families double up with strangers, sell food stamps, and pirate electricity but inevitably fall behind.”

In his review DeParle traces the impact of  what he calls “the eviction industrial complex” on neighborhoods and on lives—the ways poverty affects the prospects of children at school by disrupting their lives and undermining the stability of their parents.  DeParle explains that one child profiled attended five different schools in seventh and eighth grade: “He once missed seventeen consecutive days.  The disruptions cause workers to get fired.  Letters sent to wrong addresses cause people to miss appointments and lose public aid.  Evictions mar the tenants’ records…. One in two recently evicted mothers reports multiple symptoms of clinical depression…. Eviction isn’t just another hardship… but a detour onto a much harder path—“a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.”  And the shortage of housing for poor families has  grown more serious in the past quarter century: “Demolition and gentrification claimed the cheap units, and sputtering incomes swelled the number of needy renters.  In 1970, the US had nearly a million more affordable units than poor households, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  Two decades later, the situation had reversed: there were five million more poor households than affordable units.  Housing was better but cost a lot more.  The severe recession that began in December 2007 delivered a double whammy.  Foreclosures turned millions of homeowners into renters, which kept rents rising even as incomes fell.”  “The big problem is that it costs more to build even modest housing than millions of households can pay….”

DeParle examines Desmond’s thesis that our society should provide universal housing vouchers and presents studies that question the value of what would be an enormous public investment.  But he also presents the data from a study last year by Harvard economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence F. Katz, who demonstrate, with historical data, that children younger than eight years old showed statistically improved life chances after their families moved from poor to middle income neighborhoods.

Finally—Growing residential segregation by income across America exacerbates challenges for schools and for families.  This week, in The Concentration of Poverty in American SchoolsThe Atlantic directly examines the impact of economic segregation overlaid on racial segregation on students’ attainment at school: “In about half of the largest 100 cities, most African American and Latino students attend schools where at least 75 percent of all students qualify as poor or low income under federal guidelines.  These stark results emerge from an analysis of data from the National Equity Atlas.  The Atlas is a joint project of PolicyLink and the University of Sourhern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity…. (O)verall, concentrated poverty is tightly correlated with gaps in educational achievement.  ‘It’s the measure of segregation that is most strongly correlated to the racial achievement gap,’ said Sean F. Reardon, a professor at Stanford University’s graduate school of education and one of the nation’s leading experts on residential and educational segregation… The latest figures from the National Center for Educational Statistics show that nationwide about three-fourths of both African American and Hispanic young people (compared to about one-third of white students) attend schools where most of their classmates qualify as low income.”

Reardon believes that our society must recognize and face the daunting challenges of poverty and racial-economic isolation of children in America’s public schools: “We don’t have much evidence that we can make major improvements in educational equality solely through school policy alone.  Educational policy has to be part of the picture.  But we need more than that.  We need to think about residential integration… we need to think about school integration, which gets easier when you have more residential integration; we need to think about increasing economic parity between blacks and whites.”

New Illinois Analysis: Test Scores Correlate with School’s Economic Level, Not School’s Quality

States like my own state of Ohio that assign letter grades (A-F) to schools and school districts base these rankings pretty much on the standardized test scores of the students.  Test scores—with high school graduation rates sometimes added to the algorithm that determines the grade—are understood as the way to measure school quality.  The “A” school is the one with high test scores and the “F” school is the one with the low test scores.

Every time the Plain Dealer publishes the list of school district grades, I wonder how readers just swallow the story as though it is the gospel truth.  The “A” districts are, after all, concentrated in the wealthy exurbs.  The “F” districts are the Cleveland City Schools and a handful of inner ring suburban school districts.  And, like other states, Ohio uses the same metrics for grading its school teachers.  The metric we have chosen encourages us to believe that good teachers cluster in rich school districts and bad teachers cluster in poor school districts.  We are told by the “school reformers” that if we just got rid of the bad teachers, test scores everywhere would rise.

What all this is doing across the metropolitan areas that have adopted the A-F grades (a policy recommended, by the way, by Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education and piloted in Florida when Jeb Bush was the governor there) is exacerbating segregation by economics and also by race.  Here is what Richard Rothstein told the audience when he spoke at the Cleveland City Club in February:  “These rating systems really just describe the social class of the students in the schools.  And the high ratings don’t necessarily mean they’re better schools.  Many of these schools that are rated ‘A’ because they happen to have a lot of middle class children with highly educated parents may add less value to their students than schools rated ‘F’…. Those ‘F’ schools may actually be better schools in terms of what they add to students than ‘A’ schools, but most people don’t understand that.  And so if you label schools with ‘A-F’ ratings, people who attend a ‘C’ school, which may be integrated, are going to want to move their children to an ‘A’ school.  This will increase the segregation of schools by convincing people that these ‘A-F’ ratings accurately reflect the quality of the school.”

This week  a new analysis in metropolitan Chicago by WBEZ and the Daily Herald reconfirms Rothstein’s conclusion and what a large body of academic research has demonstrated over the years: the family poverty among students in public school in the Chicago area is growing rapidly; the number of schools in segregated areas with highly concentrated poverty is growing; and test scores are primarily an indicator of the aggregate economic level of the school.  A school’s high test scores correlate with a low level of family poverty among the students while a school’s low test scores correlate with an increased amount and concentration of poverty in a school community.

“Our analysis shows a vast expansion of poverty—2,244 schools have seen their proportion of low-income students increase by at least 10 percentage points over the last decade.  And the number of schools struggling with concentrated poverty—where nearly every child in the school is low-income has ballooned (from 421 schools in 2004 to 649 in 2014).  But perhaps most troubling, WBEZ and the Daily Herald find that poverty remains a frustratingly accurate predictor of how well schools will perform.  Schools full of middle class kids rarely perform below average on state tests; schools made up of low-income kids rarely score above.  In fact, test score data in Illinois indicate that the degree to which poverty is tied to school performance is slightly stronger than it was a decade ago—despite reforms that have included school re-staffings, closures, consolidations, new state standards and more stringent guidelines for evaluating teachers.” “(A) graph of 10 years of state test score data paints a picture of near-perfect stratification.  Schools with the fewest poor students score the highest on average.  Schools’ scores go consistently down from there as the proportion of low-income students in a school goes up.  The pattern holds for every income level over every year for the past decade—for both elementary and high schools.”

Greg Duncan, professor of economics at the University of California at Irvine and an expert on the impact of poverty, inequality, and growing residential segregation by income  on school achievement, is quoted in the new Illinois report: “(L)ow-income kids are more likely to have low-income neighbors, high-income kids high-income neighbors.  What that means for schools is quite troubling.”  The reporter continues: “Duncan… says that with affluent parents now spending $10,000 per child per year on enrichment for their children—everything from music lessons to summer camps to private tutoring—the burden on schools to keep low-income kids learning at the same pace as upper-income kids has increased very substantially.  He stresses that scores have improved for all children since the 1970s—including poor children.  But upper-income children’s scores have improved more, widening the gap.”

The most conclusive research on the correlation of poverty and school achievement is the demographic data of Sean Reardon at Stanford University. Reardon documents that across America’s metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrates that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.

In an excellent new book, Our Kids, Robert Putnam explores the many ways widening inequality and segregation by income affect children and their educational prospects. Putnam adds another important factor that likely affects the sense of hope or despair pervading schools increasingly segregated by family income level: the widening disparity in family assets. “Growing inequality in accumulated wealth is particularly marked…. Even taking into account the losses of the Great Recession, the net worth of college-educated American households with children rose by 47 percent between 1989 and 2013, whereas among high school-educated households, net worth actually fell by 17 percent during that quarter century.  Parental wealth is especially important for social mobility because it can provide informal insurance that allows kids to take more risks in search of more reward.” (Our Kids, 36)

Will the President Say Something Meaningful in SOTU about Inequality and Public Education?

Sean Reardon, the Stanford University sociologist has extensively documented the impact of neighborhood inequality on school achievement.

In a report released last fall, Residential Segregation by Income, 1970-2009, with Kendra Bischoff of Cornell University, Reardon describes residential segregation by income across our nation’s 117 largest metropolitan areas (those with populations of 500,000 in 2009).  These metropolitan areas are, according to Bischoff and Reardon, “home to 197 million people.”

Bischoff and Reardon study the segregation of families, not households, because, “Segregation is likely more consequential for children than for adults for two reasons. First most children spend a great deal of time in their neighborhood, making that immediate context particularly salient for them, while adults generally work and socialize in a larger geographic area.  Second, for children, income segregation can lead to disparities in crucial public amenities, like schools, parks, libraries, and recreation.”

Children are affected by “neighborhood composition effects” such as the poverty rate, the average educational attainment level and the proportion of single parent families in their neighborhood as well as by “resource distribution effects” that include investments in their schools and recreation facilities as well as the presence of public hazards like pollution or crime.

While the research report is dense, the conclusions demonstrate clearly that in America we are increasingly raising our children in pockets of extreme poverty or pockets of extreme affluence:

  • By 2009 the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods had increased—to 33 percent (from 15 percent in 1970) and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods had declined to 42 percent in 2009 (from 65 percent in 1970), with increased segregation at both ends of the income distribution.  Both high-and low-income families became increasingly residentially isolated in the 2000s, resulting in greater polarization of neighborhoods by income, although, “During the last four decades, the isolation of the rich has been consistently greater than the isolation of the poor.”
  • Income segregation has grown significantly over four decades for black and Hispanic families, but particularly in the years since 2000.  While income inequality among black families did not grow significantly in the two most recent decades from 1990 to 2009, residential segregation by income did grow considerably among black families.  “Low-income black and Hispanic families are much more isolated from middle-class black and Hispanic families than are low-income white families from middle- and high-income white families.  The rapid growth of income segregation among black families has exacerbated the clustering of poor black families in neighborhoods with very high poverty rates.  And while middle class black families were less likely to live in neighborhoods with low-income black families, this does not mean that middle-class blacks gained access to middle-class white neighborhoods…”  Racial segregation continues even for the black middle class.

In an earlier 2011 study, Reardon demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap.  The inequality achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

During the George Bush and Barack Obama administrations, support has been bipartisan for a political agenda that fails to address child poverty and that ignores growing economic inequality and accompanying isolation of the poorest children in urban neighborhoods defined by their concentrated poverty.  The bipartisan agenda, established in the 2002 federal testing law, No Child Left Behind, and perpetuated in ongoing policies like Race to the Top, has operated through sanctions for the schools and teachers struggling to raise test scores in the poorest neighborhoods of America’s big cities. Today’s bipartisan public school “reform” philosophy is dominated by the principles of competition (ranking and rating schools), creative disruption (closing schools and firing principals and teachers), and privatization (assuming that charter schools  and even on-line schools can magically address the needs of children who struggle).  There has been little conversation about addressing inequality, ameliorating poverty, or even bringing school funding up to a level of equity between wealthy and poor school districts.

In a recent guest post published as part of Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column, Kevin Welner, the director of the  National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, asks those who listen to President Obama’s State of the Union Message on Tuesday night, which is expected to address the issue of income inequality, to look for substantive plans to address inequality and not merely  “unproven and ineffectual treatments.”  Welner decries the policies of the Bush and Obama administrations:  “We heap demands on those schools, deprive them of the resources they urgently need, and then declare them to be ‘failing schools’ when they don’t perform miracles.”

Welner suggests our nation’s children living in poverty (an alarming 22 percent of all children in the United States) deserve a serious answer to this question: “How do I design, pass, and implement a package of policies that have been shown to be effective at addressing wealth inequality and the damage caused by that inequality?”  He suggests that strategies aimed to lift families out of poverty are, in reality, policies to improve school achievement.  “We should honestly consider policies like a guaranteed minimum income, increases in the minimum wage, and a tax structure that shifts the burden toward the extremely wealthy.  The way to reduce wealth inequality is to do just that: reduce wealth inequality.  Our public schools can help, but they cannot do it alone.”

Sean Reardon Confirms Further Widening of Segregation by Income

Near the end of their new book, Public Education Under Siege, educator Mike Rose and historian Michael B. Katz describe what they believe is the toughest problem for public education in America: “Throughout American history, inequality—refracted most notably through poverty and race—has impinged on the ability of children to learn and of teachers to do their jobs.” (p. 228)  Today the United States tolerates an alarming 22 percent child poverty rate, by far the highest rate of child poverty in any of the world’s so-called industrialized nations.  At the same time our society is experiencing ongoing segregation by economics and isolation of the poor and the rich.  Growing economic segregation overlays segregation by race and ethnicity, and the trend is mirrored by a widening income inequality school achievement gap.

Documenting these trends in 2011, Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon showed here that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods.  By 2007, fewer families lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated here that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap.  The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

In a new report, Residential Segregation by Income, 1970-2009, with Kendra Bischoff of Cornell University, Reardon has updated the work on residential segregation by income across our nation’s 117 largest metropolitan areas (those with populations of 500,000 in 2009).  These metropolitan areas are, according to Bischoff and Reardon, “home to 197 million people.”

Bischoff and Reardon study the segregation of families, not households, because, “Segregation is likely more consequential for children than for adults for two reasons. First most children spend a great deal of time in their neighborhood, making that immediate context particularly salient for them, while adults generally work and socialize in a larger geographic area.  Second, for children, income segregation can lead to disparities in crucial public amenities, like schools, parks, libraries, and recreation.”  Children are affected by “neighborhood composition effects” such as the poverty rate, the average educational attainment level and the proportion of single parent families in their neighborhood as well as by “resource distribution effects” that include investments in their schools and recreation facilities as well as the presence of public hazards like pollution or crime.

While the research report is dense, the conclusions demonstrate clearly that segregation by family income continues to grow:

  • By 2009 the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods had increased—to 33 percent (from 15 percent in 1970) and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods had declined to 42 percent in 2009 (from 65 percent in 1970), with increased segregation at both ends of the income distribution.  Both high-and low-income families became increasingly residentially isolated in the 2000s, resulting in greater polarization of neighborhoods by income, although, “During the last four decades, the isolation of the rich has been consistently greater than the isolation of the poor. “
  • Income segregation has grown significantly over four decades for black and Hispanic families, but particularly in the years since 2000.  While income inequality among black families did not grow significantly in the two most recent decades from 1990 to 2009, residential segregation by income did grow considerably among black families.  “Low-income black and Hispanic families are much more isolated from middle-class black and Hispanic families than are low-income white families from middle- and high-income white families.  The rapid growth of income segregation among black families has exacerbated the clustering of poor black families in neighborhoods with very high poverty rates.  And while middle class black families were less likely to live in neighborhoods with low-income black families, this does not mean that middle-class blacks gained access to middle-class white neighborhoods…”  Racial segregation continues even for the black middle class.

The growing segregation by economics that Reardon documented two years ago and confirms here is pure social science research.  He and Bischoff are not prescribing policy.  We ought to ask, however, what are the implications for school reform?  Are not the neighborhoods where very low-income black and Hispanic families are concentrated the very neighborhoods that are currently the target of punitive school reform policies that fail to address the very factors Reardon and Bischoff identify: poverty, inequality and growing segregation?  Our policies target these communities for school closure, privatization through rapid growth in charters, and penalties for teachers who are unable to raise scores while our society has chosen to deny the significance of the trends Bischoff and Reardon confirm.

Bischoff and Reardon pledge to examine in future research another question their data suggests: “If socioeconomic segregation means that more advantaged families do not share social environments and public institutions (schools, public services, parks, etc) with low-income families, advantaged families may hold back their support for investments in shared resources.  Such a shift in commitment may have far-reaching consequences for the rest of society.”  One can only wonder whether austerity budgeting across the states and in Congress may reflect our society’s growing residential isolation by income.