It’s Time to Take On Concentrated Poverty and Education

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We’re proud to collaborate with The Nation in sharing insightful journalism related to income inequality in America. The following is an excerpt from Nation contributor Greg Kaufmann’s “This Week in Poverty” column.

Students listen to a news conference with Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter in April 2012. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Researchers know a lot about how various factors associated with income level affect a child’s learning: parents’ educational attainment; how parents read to, play with and respond to their children; the quality of early care and early education; access to consistent physical and mental health services and healthy food. Poor children’s limited access to these fundamentals accounts for a good chunk of the achievement gap, which is why conceiving of it instead as an opportunity gap makes a lot more sense.

But we rarely discuss the impact of concentrated poverty — and of racial and socioeconomic segregation — on student achievement. James Coleman’s widely cited 1966 report Equality of Educational Opportunity has drawn substantial attention to the influence of family socioeconomic status on a child’s academic achievement. However, as Richard Kahlenberg, Senior Fellow at the Century Foundation, notes: “Until very recently, the second finding, about the importance of reducing concentrations of school poverty, has been consciously ignored by policymakers, despite publication of study after study that confirmed Coleman’s findings.”

It’s time that we stop ignoring it. The past few decades have seen increasing income polarization, with the top 1 percent reaping the vast majority of societal gains, the middle class shrinking and those at the bottom losing ground. As a result, concentrated poverty is more potent and relevant an issue than ever. Add to that the fact that 2012 marked the 25th anniversary of William Julius Wilson’s groundbreaking book, The Truly Disadvantaged, and we have every reason to reexamine the life realities, impacts and policy implications of segregation and entrenched, concentrated U.S. poverty.

Wilson’s research explains how a combination of northward migration among African-American families, disproportionate loss of jobs in the industries in which they worked and the mass migration of middle-class black families from city centers to suburbs, created an underclass comprised of the truly disadvantaged: concentrated ghettos of poor, unemployed, under-educated families with dim school and life prospects, largely headed by single black women. Although Wilson’s work spurred multiple policy fields and thousands of studies on concentrated poverty, the reality for those experiencing it remains tragically unchanged. The number and proportion of families living in concentrated poverty dropped briefly during the boom years of the 1990s, but it has since increased again and even spread further:

[T]he problem of poverty concentration is growing, and the type of district grappling with the issue is no longer confined to those in urban areas. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Condition of Education, 47 percent of elementary students now attend majority low-income schools, and the proportion of high-poverty schools has grown from 34 percent in 1999 to 47 percent in 2008. A 2010 Brookings Institution report, “The Suburbanization of Poverty,” found that in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, more poor people live in large suburbs than in their primary cities.

This trend frustrates efforts to improve educational achievement among low-income and minority students. Concentrated poverty plays a key role in explaining why poor white students perform better on tests, on average, than African-American students with similar family incomes. Not only are white children much less likely than their black peers to live in poverty (12.5 percent versus 37 percent), among those who are poor, only 12 percent of white children live in concentrated poverty, while nearly half of poor African-American children do. Black students are thus much more likely to attend schools in which most of their classmates are also poor. It isn’t hard to imagine the impact of this divide: black students disproportionately lack peers whose parents went to college and who take for granted that they will go; their schools and the pathways to them are more likely to be dangerous; their PTAs are comprised of parents with little political power to get the school system to meet their demands; and too many parents are overwhelmed by factors that render help with homework a major challenge — multiple or late-night jobs, cramped and unhealthy housing, lack of heat and insufficient food.

Breaking up concentrated poverty and reducing segregation at the neighborhood and school levels offers tremendous potential. As Kahlenberg points out, “on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), low-income fourth grade students given the chance to attend more-affluent schools in math are two years ahead of low-income students stuck in high-poverty schools.”

Dr. Heather Schwartz, policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, also finds that socioeconomic integration trumps extra resources in boosting achievement.  In her rigorous study of Montgomery County, Maryland schools, low-income students whose subsidized housing assignments enabled them to attend very low-poverty schools closed more of the achievement gap with their high-income peers than did low-income students in higher poverty schools who received an additional $2,000 — monies which were devoted to extended learning time, smaller classes and specialized professional development.

Effective policies exist to de-concentrate poverty and desegregate schools. Montgomery County showcases one of the smartest: laws that require developers to set aside a proportion of new housing units for subsidized housing, so that rather than creating ghettos of all-poor families (and resource-poor schools to go with them), lower-income families are able to reside in higher-income areas, and their children attend higher-income schools. Counties and cities across the country are exploring and adopting less restrictive zoning laws, since minimum-acreage lot requirements inherently lead to income segregation and force the concentration of poverty in less-restricted regions. The Century Foundation’s recent book, The Future of School Integration, advocates school “choice” focused on integrating students through voluntary inter-district transfer, and magnet schools that draw students of different ethnic, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds without busing, by making the case to today’s parents that a 21st century education requires no less.

As the United States increasingly regresses toward a Gilded Age of haves and have-nots — in terms of income, education and opportunity — taking on concentrated poverty is critical. Indeed, Richard Rothstein and Mark Santow assert in their recent paper that, until we do so, education reform efforts are all but doomed. Continuing to consign so many children and families to communities devoid of pathways out of poverty is tantamount to throwing away our greatest resource for the 21st century: human potential.

Greg Kaufmann is a Nation contributor covering poverty in America. He has been a guest on NPR, including Here & Now, Your Call, Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane and various local radio programs including the Matthew Filipowicz Show. His work has also appeared on Common Dreams, Alternet,,, and He serves as an adviser for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
Elaine Weiss is the national coordinator for the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, where she works with a high-level Task Force and coalition partners to promote a comprehensive, evidence-based set of policies to allow all children to thrive.
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  • Anonymous

    It’s the corrosive concept of competition that our society is built on, which generates both poor education for many and the concentrations / disparities of wealth we now see. Author Alfie Kohn, one of the most brilliant pedagogists out there, shows in his book No Contest: The Case Against Competition just how destructive competition is. In competitions, most people lose, and one succeeds at the rate one beats down others. This is a recipe for disaster. So “improving” education in the same old competitive modes will simply be adding more insult to the injury, the insanity of doing the same thing ever more intensely and expecting different results. We need to move beyond focusing on symptoms and instead focus more on sources.

  • Dave A

    So, why do you almost completely ignore the abdication from the traditional family unit of Momma, Poppa and kids? Fix that issue and you will fix a lot of the poverty issue. When we jettison the basic building blocks of culture, we do a far broader damage and a far more lasting damage. A strong nuclear family is the best defense against poverty, drug abuse and crime. The last three are a hydra that creates the problems mentioned.

  • cloudy

    We need to consider how this aligns with rural poverty, too.

  • Erik Kengaard

    Much of our poverty, and much of poor academic performance, has been imported. Especially in California. Why did we do that?

  • Rusty Wilson

    Competition is capitalism. Capitalism is what it is and it cannot be reformed as all reforms are only temporary. Socialism is based on cooperation rather than competition and only with socialism’s destruction of the class system can true equality come about. “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” Capitalists don’t care about “human potential” they only care about profit potential. The demolition of our society and of the ecosystem will continue with liberals rearranging the deck chairs until the whole human race sinks extinct.

  • Barbara R Saunders

    This version of the “traditional family” does not match up with history. Some fathers died in war. Some fathers and some mothers left families for long periods of time to earn money at distant jobs. Some fathers and some mothers, just like today, were abusive or addicted or otherwise incompetent. The difference was that the entire adult population was not expected to be in the work force, so families could help one another out. My grandmother’s father was a widower; she was mentored by the nuns of her parish. My grandmother’s mother was a widow with 10 children and a farm to run.

    The NUCLEAR family is part of the problem, not the solution. That model of modernity and succes encouraged people to leave rooted communities consisting of multiple extended families in a commonwealth with an isolated unit that could be moved around the country for the convenience of corporations. A “traditional” family might have looked like – dad working on a railroad, traveling for extended periods of time; mom living with HER mom and an unmarried sister vs. a couple struggling with a mortgage, childcare, two cars for two commutes, etc. “Morality,” people cheating on each other, bad parent, and so on … probably not much changed.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, competition is capitalism, which is what I was saying clearly seems to be the problem. Can Capitalism be reformed? Very likely not, as you say. To say “all reforms are temporary,” though, seems to simply be saying all things are temporary. Whatever the case, it is wise to move as best we can to make good things happen and sustain them as long as possible. And when they fail, however long-lived or temporary, to continue making good things happen and sustaining them as long as possible. Socialism is a word that gets used a lot without much specificity, and there are plenty of things are called “socialist” but do not seem to really function the way they were intended, or claim to. I prefer thinking of cooperative structures or methods — worker cooperatives, community gardens, etc. “Liberals rearranging the deck chairs” to me seems inaccurate. We have The Power Elite (great book by C. Wright Mills) who has created Democracy For The Few (another great book by Michael Parenti), so it’s not a liberal or conservative issue, but the corrosive soup in which they stew. There are tons of liberals and conservatives in public office who serve this power elite (or as CitiGroup’s memo about this topic called them, the Plutonomy), and unfortunately it’s about the same quantity in both groups. Liberals tend to be a tiny bit better, because they have to at least look good on social issues, and thus have to give some in those areas. But they both have dirty hands, because the system we live by is increasingly [less democratic & more Orwellian police state]. And because it is all based on competition and consumption, yes, we are destroying the ecosystems of the world, as well as destroying the lives of millions of people. So what we need is, I feel, to implement ideas like those Jill Stein and others have put forth.

  • Pat Elgee

    One thing that would work. Have every class take an achievement test at the end of the school year. Each year, the class would have a composite score going into the class, then one at the end of the year. Then the score would be listed on the teacher’s record. If one teacher’s class scored high on reading comprehension, she might be asked to give a presentation to the others on her methods. Another teacher might give one on math, spelling, or vocabulary.

    No student would be left behind, because it would negatively affect the teachers’ scores. You would find the teachers whose classes only earn 30% year after year and also find the teachers whose classes earn 250%. It would not take very long for the 30-percenters to just walk away and perhaps find something where they could be more successful. In time, perhaps, the salaries would reflect the composite scores. This would mean the most talented teachers would be making a decent living.

    If a new teacher was great, her pay would not be the lowest in the district, nor would someone who has been on staff for years and years with a double masters, but who is completely ineffective be pulling in the highest salary in the district. Trust me, this happens.

    As a former teacher, I can tell you that I would rather be evaluated objectively by my students’ success in the classroom, then by someone’s subjective look at my classroom. Accountability! We must be accountable in every other position from street sweeper to NASA scientist, but not in education. Not for teachers in whom we entrust our most precious children, their future, and the future of the world! Does this really make sense?

  • Knut Holt

    In nearly all countries there is a malignant system in work that make healthy food expensive and unhealthy food cheap, which forces poor people to live unhaelthily, and this has a direct impact on learning capabilities. This must somehow be remended by active efforts from the society itself.