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Jump-Starting the Future for Students Living in Deep Poverty

Blog Series: Educating the Whole Child. Mitigating Poverty's Impact on Student Success by Peter W. Cookson Jr. and Linda Darling-Hammond

This post is part of LPI's Educating the Whole Child blog series, which explores research, policy, and practices to support students' healthy growth and development.

Today, more than 5 million children in the United States—roughly 7% of all U.S. children—are living in deep poverty. Based on federally established poverty thresholds, that means their family’s annual income is 50% below the poverty threshold, or less than $13,875 for a family of four. Let that sink in for a minute—a family of four living on $1,156 a month or less to cover food, housing, health care, transportation, and more.   

Children and families experiencing deep poverty live in every state. They live in cities, in rural communities, and, increasingly, in the suburbs. They are confronted by continuous experiences of vulnerability and marginality, which are acute, compounded, and persistent. These hardships impact Black and Native American children more frequently than white children, due to the country’s long history of racism, which has deprived Black and Native American families of property, education, and services. Recent research shows that deep poverty is associated with the reemergence of diseases thought to be eradicated, declining life expectancies, and nearly constant food and housing insecurity—including a recent spike in homelessness.  

But deep poverty does not have to determine the life chances of children. While schools cannot mitigate all the effects of deep poverty, a new Learning Policy Institute report, Building School Communities for Students Living in Deep Poverty, provides a framework for how schools and school systems can leverage three key strategies to mitigate the impact of poverty on student success and well-being. These are: funding adequacy and equity; community schools and partnerships; and a whole child teaching and learning culture. We describe each of these strategies below.

Provide Full and Fair Funding

Children living in deep poverty all too often lack the educational resources they need for success, such as access to certified and experienced teachers, high-speed internet, up-to-date classroom instructional materials, and extracurricular experiences. Although some states, like California, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, have overhauled inequitable funding formulas, many states continue to underfund schools serving students from deeply poor households. Analyses of data prepared for school equity cases in more than 20 states have found that on every tangible measure—from qualified teachers and reasonable class sizes to adequate textbooks, computers, facilities, and curriculum offerings—schools serving large numbers of students of color and students from low-income families have significantly fewer resources than schools serving more affluent white students.

Studies show that reforms creating more adequate and equitable funding have had a direct positive impact on student outcomes and lifelong success, particularly for students from low-income families. For example, a 2016 study found that, for children from low-income families, a 10% increase in per-pupil spending each year for all 12 years of public school is associated with an additional half year of completed education and a 10 percentage point increase in high school graduation, along with 10% higher earnings and a 6 percentage point reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty.  

Studies show that reforms creating more adequate and equitable funding have had a direct positive impact on student outcomes and lifelong success, particularly for students from low-income families.

A 2016 study of the academic outcomes resulting from California’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) reform also found beneficial effects for students from low-income families. A $1,000 increase in district per-pupil revenue from the state experienced in grades 10–12 leads to a 6.1 percentage point increase in high school graduation rates, on average, among students from low-income families (and a 5.3% increase among all students).  

In addition to equitable state funding across districts, districts need to implement equitable funding across all their schools, so that schools with a large number of students from deep poverty backgrounds receive more funding than schools that have a low percentage of students from poverty backgrounds. It also matters greatly how those additional funds are spent. High-leverage expenditures for improving opportunities and outcomes include investments in a well-prepared, stable educator workforce that is equitably distributed across schools; early childhood education that addresses the learning gaps that occur before kindergarten; expanded learning time both after school and in the summer; smaller class sizes and tutoring that address acute learning needs of students; the physical and mental health care and social services that allow students to be supported and to thrive; and the availability of technology to support both schoolwork and access to a huge range of services and supports in our modern world.

Develop Community Schools and Partnerships

To meet the needs of students living in deep poverty, schools must be more than buildings focused on academics. They should serve as community hubs offering a supportive learning experience and extended services to students, families, and neighborhoods. One model for this type of environment is the community school—a place-based strategy rooted in developing relationships of trust and practices of shared leadership to better engage and support young people and adults alike. Community schools support students’ well-being and academic success by partnering with community organizations and public agencies to provide an integrated focus on academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement. Many community schools operate on all-day and year-round schedules and serve both children and adults.

A comprehensive review of the evidence from more than 140 studies found that well-implemented community schools are associated with positive student outcomes, including reduced absenteeism, improved academic outcomes, and student reports of more positive school climates. At least 100 school districts have taken the community schools strategy to scale, and states like California, Maryland, New York, and Vermont are tackling this agenda statewide. This type of scaling up to serve broader geographic areas is critical to providing systemic supports to students and families living in deep poverty.

To meet the needs of students living in deep poverty, schools must be more than buildings focused on academics.

Educate the Whole Child

There is convincing research that educational success for all children—and especially those from households living in deep poverty—is best achieved when educators establish positive relationships with students and families. Schools serving students from deeply poor families should develop whole child practices that focus on healthy attachments, understand and address trauma, build on children’s strengths, and provide access to community resources. Supportive schools are safe and caring learning communities, with consistent routines that allow students to be well known and well supported in an environment that is culturally responsive and inclusive. For children living in deep poverty, a whole child approach should be rooted in and build upon the strengths and cultures of local communities.

Toward a New Social Safety Net

In addition to investing in education, there is also a need to invest in families. Direct support of families can dramatically reduce poverty and deep poverty. A July 2021 study by the Urban Institute, for example, found that when the federal child tax credit provisions included in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) were coupled with unemployment insurance, refundable tax credits, and federal stimulus checks, poverty dropped dramatically. Writing about the impact of these poverty-fighting measures, authors note: “Considering results by age group, the combined benefits have the largest impact on children, reducing their projected 2021 poverty rate 81 percent relative to what it would be without any benefits.” This finding was corroborated by a Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University study that found that ARPA could reduce child poverty by more than half. However, the expanded child tax credit provisions in ARPA expired at the end of 2021. The House-passed Build Back Better Act would have extended the expanded tax credit for an additional year and made it permanently available to children in families with low or no earnings in a year, but this legislation stalled in the Senate. It remains to be seen whether these critical supports will become part of a national commitment to children’s well-being.

Investing in the well-being of deeply poor families and the education of their children is not only the right thing to do, it benefits the whole society. In a 2008 review of the education cost-benefit research, Henry Levin found “that high school graduation is associated with higher incomes, better health, lower criminal activity, and lower welfare receipt.” Besides the benefits to the individuals, Levin also documented the societal benefits, noting that “each graduate will, on average, generate economic benefits to the public sector of $209,100.” At that time, he estimated that these benefits would reach $45 billion if the dropout rate were cut in half, an amount worth $60 billion today. Levin concluded:

“Overall, investment in adequate education for all children is more than just good public investment policy with high monetary returns. A society that provides fairer access to opportunities, that is more productive, and that has higher employment, better health, less crime, and lower dependency is a better society in itself. That the attainment of such a society is also profoundly good economics is simply an added incentive.”

We know what a strong safety net looks like. It is woven from educational and social policies that are designed to empower families and communities and overcome the historical and structural limitations that keep families and children from realizing their potential and dreams. A strong set of social and educational policies and practices is not meant to catch families from “falling into poverty.” Rather, it is about extending to them the high-quality education and protection from material hardship that all families and communities need for success.