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To Boost Test Scores, Address Poverty’s Effects on Childhood

September 30, 2018

A few days ago Colorado Chalkbeat writer Matt Barnum wrote a research based article that offers evidence that should be obvious to politicians, voters, and compassionate human beings: the effects of poverty result in lower academic performance. After describing the academic travails of the children of a Memphis homeless parent and their academic success once she found a home, Mr. Barnum asserts that a set of robust Anti-Povert programs might be the answer to improving “failing schools”:

In other words, many policies with a shot at changing the experience of low-income students in school don’t have anything to do with the schools themselves. That also means, as these findings pile up, they get relatively little attention from education policymakers who could be key advocates.

We’re so compartmentalized when we think about kids,” said Greg Duncan, a professor at the University of California, Irvine who has researched the effects of anti-poverty programs. “For people who are interested in promoting well-being of children … these safety net programs should be very much on people’s mind.”

Chalkbeat identified more than 20 studies published in the past decade that examine how increasing family income or benefits, like food stamps and health insurance, affect children’s outcomes in school in the U.S. This research does not simply restate the well-known fact that less affluent children do worse in schools than more affluent ones; the studies try to pin down the effect of providing additional resources to families in poverty.

Over and over, they find that more money or benefits helps kids in school.

As one who has long advocated the need for coordinating resources (see this article I wrote for Education Week in 2003), this is a completely unsurprising “discovery”. Public school advocates should be anti-poverty advocates whether the advocates live in the affluent suburbs or in poverty stricken neighborhoods or communities.

After offering several caveats on the findings that associate high poverty with low academic performance, Mr. Barnum does offer some broad conclusions that he finds unassailable:

  • Higher family income means fewer problems in schools
  • Health insurance and supplemental funding for food help
  • Housing vouchers have not yielded any evidence change in academic performance

Mr. Barnum’s final caveat leading into this concluding list describes the biggest problem anti-poverty advocates face— trade-offs that are required to put the research findings into place:

Finally, the studies generally don’t say much about trade-offs. What are the costs — perhaps higher taxes — of expanding such initiatives? Might other programs be a better use of scarce dollars? They also don’t tell us anything about bigger philosophical debates surrounding anti-poverty programs, or about the value of making sure people have adequate food and housing.

Unstated are the two tenets it appears most voters believe: taxes are confiscatory and “government is the problem”. Anti-poverty advocates need to change the voters’ thinking on both of these tenets… and to do so will require politicians to appeal to the higher angels in voters and point to the many places where government DOES succeed and DOES solve problems.

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