Matthew Lynch: The Academic Consequences of Poverty

Poverty is a major problem in the United States. The middle class seems to be disappearing and the gap is widening between the upper class and the lower class sectors of society. The socioeconomic status of children and their families has a profound effect on the children's education, even in a country that prides itself on equal opportunity and fair treatment of all. Socioeconomic status can be determined by one's level of education, occupation and income. A high socioeconomic status is characterized by a high level of education, and a high status occupation, and a high income. A low socioeconomic status is typified by a lower level of education, a job of low prestige and a low income.

Matthew Lynch

While unemployment is a factor for some, there are many who are employed and still live below the poverty line. The problem is that post World War II, good paying jobs were easy to find in factories and manufacturing. A person who graduated from high school could easily find a good-paying job and support their family. Now things are very different. Many of our manufacturing jobs have been farmed out to countries where cheap labor can be found. A higher level of education is needed for high paying jobs that can support a family. It is difficult to support a family with a minimum wage job, even when working full-time.

Contrary to what many believed possible in the past, education has not been able to eliminate poverty. Schools have not been designed to properly serve poor children. They reflect and promote a middle-class way of life. Educator Ruby Payne has researched and written about poverty and how schools can better support children living in poverty. She discovered the middle class is driven by achievement and work, while the driving force behind the generational poor is survival first, followed by entertainment and relationships. As a result, teachers who attempt to motivate students through work and achievement may have to alter their approach when working with students who live in poverty. Students from poverty backgrounds do not understand middle-class rules. Their level of motivation will most likely be influenced by a relationship with the teacher or other adults in the class.

What other challenges do impoverished children experience? They often come from homes that are not adequate in terms of shelter and may be in very dangerous communities. In their neighborhood, they may be exposed to drugs, violent crime and prostitution, and may turn to these types of activities themselves at an early age. Parents of children living in poverty often struggle to provide them with enough quality food and medical coverage.

Children living in poverty often come to school without having had enough sleep, and without having had breakfast. They often experience family violence, abuse, secondhand smoke, neglect, poor clothing and shoes. Even though they have limited experience in the world, they may not be able to pay for field trips and cannot pay for extracurricular activities of any kind that could actually expand their experience base. This is the frightening reality for millions of children, and teachers are very likely to have impoverished students in their class. Teachers need to consider what that means and how they can reach out to these students and help them excel.

Dr. Matthew Lynch is an Assistant Professor of Education at Widener University. Dr. Lynch is the author of three books; It's Time for Change: School Reform for the Next Decade (Rowman & Littlefield December, 2012), A Guide to Effective School Leadership Theories (Routledge February 26, 2012), and The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Teaching (Pearson 2013). Please visit his website at for more information.

03 9, 2012
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