America's Poverty-Education Link

08/29/2012 08:51 am ET | Updated Oct 29, 2012
  • Howard Steven Friedman Statistician and health economist for the United Nations; Teacher, Columbia University

Poverty and education are inextricably linked where education is a primary means of social mobility, enabling those born into poverty to rise in society. Powerful evidence of the link include the fact that 46 percent of Americans who grew up in low-income families but failed to earn college degrees stayed in the lowest income quintile, compared to 16 percent for those who earned a college degree.

The link between poverty and education can be seen at all educational levels. From the earliest stage, pre-primary education, poorer Americans start disadvantaged. Children of parents earning less than $15,000 a year have pre-primary enrollment rates about 20 percent lower than children of parents earning more than $50,000 a year. This pre-school disadvantage for poor people has far-reaching impacts, since students who participated in preschool education were 31 percent less likely to repeat a grade and 32 percent less likely to drop out of high school. Additionally, pre-primary education reduces crime rates where children who were randomly chosen from a low-income neighborhood to attend preschool were shown to have one-fifth the chance of becoming chronic criminal offenders as the matched control group.
The educational disadvantage of those poorer students continues as they grow older. Less than 10 percent of school revenue comes from the federal government while about 90 percent comes from the state and local governments. As a result, school funding varies from state to state, and funding within a state also tends to be unequal. As of 2006, schools with the highest poverty rates received on average nearly $1,000 less per student than schools with the lowest rates, and in some states like New York and Illinois, this gap is more than $2,000 per student.

The locally driven funding (and its resulting funding gap) causes poorer students to have even more learning disadvantages. Top teachers are more likely to gravitate toward the schools that pay the most, offer the best facilities, present the safest working environments, and provide the most advanced learning environments. Consequently, poorer students are far more likely to encounter uncertified teachers, fewer resources, and substandard facilities. In the 1970s and 1980s, courts in ten states found that public education funding was unconstitutional. Corresponding court-ordered changes in state funding closed the achievement gap in states required to make changes, while the achievement gap persists in states where no such order was forthcoming.

The resulting educational disadvantage to the American poor is apparent in cross-country exams such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam. In this exam, the United States placed average to below average versus other developed countries in reading, science, and math, but these averages mask the influence of poverty.

The average American PISA reading score for higher-income schools exceeded that of all other developed countries while the average score for lower-income American schools was far lower. In fact, the PISA scores by America students were more influenced by their parents' backgrounds than every other OECD country. American students who move up one socioeconomic level would earn on average 60 points more in science, while students in other developed countries who did the same would gain fewer than 40 more PISA points. While it is not surprising to learn that wealthier students outperform poorer students, this extremely large disparity in performance among American students is of great concern because of what it implies about social mobility.

The educational disparities between rich and poor Americans are exacerbated at the college level where affordability issues have become more acute over the past few decades. From 1993 to 2007, the tuition and fees for attending in-state public universities rose an inflation-adjusted 79 percent. In 2008, the cost of attending a public college was $14,000 a year, about half the nation's median personal income. American public universities have a higher average tuition than other developed countries. Public universities in Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain charge only minimal tuitions and in some countries (Greece and most of Germany) the public universities are tuition-free. This high cost of American higher education prevents nearly half of college-qualified high school graduates from attending a four-year institution and keeps nearly one-fourth from attending any college at all. In 1979, Pell Grants, the need-based grants by the federal government to lower-income college undergraduates, covered about 75 percent of the cost of a four-year college; thirty years later, this had dropped to 33 percent.

The ramifications of these issues with educational opportunities for the poor and the affordability of college are exemplified by the fact that the highest performing eighth graders from low socioeconomic backgrounds have about the same chance of completing a bachelors degree as the lowest performing eighth graders from high socioeconomic backgrounds. The latter were also about ten times more likely to complete a college degree than low-performing eighth graders from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

America, the land of opportunity, needs to create those opportunities for all its children. Given the tight link between poverty and education, America needs to focus on how to enable everyone to have access to quality education at all levels, from pre-primary to college. These opportunities need exist so that all children can go to high-quality schools, taught by qualified teachers with appropriate facilities. America, the richest country that the world has ever seen, cannot afford to turn its back on young people just because they didn't start with a silver spoon in their mouth. Rather we need to create a situation where there is more equality of opportunity so that the most talented and diligent children rise to the top, rather than the current situation where America suffers the lowest social mobility of any other wealthy country.

This article is based on excerpts from the recently released book 'The Measure of a Nation: How to Regain America's Competitive Edge and Boost Our Global Standing.'

This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.

HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the persistence of poverty in America August 29th and September 5th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.