Students at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Dorchester, Massachusetts. (Reuters/Adam Hunger)
Co-authored with Elaine Weiss
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 twenty-fifth 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 US 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% of elementary students now attend majority low-income schools, and the proportion of high-poverty schools has grown from 34 % in 1999 to 47 % 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. (Kahlenberg p.3)