Poverty and its Effects on Childhood Education


The effects of poverty on the extent of children’s educational attainment have been the subject of academic debates for quite some time now. The reason for this is simple – there is a strongly defined rationale in assumption that, due to being exposed to poverty, children get to be deprived of a number of educational opportunities, which in its turn, lessens their chances to attain social prominence later in life.

According to Hamburg (1985): “Poverty does not harm all children, but it does put them at greater developmental risk, through the direct physical consequences of deprivation, the indirect consequences of severe stress on the parent-child relationship, and the overhanging pall of having a depreciated status in the social environment” (p. 4).

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Nevertheless, even though that, while participating in subject-related discussion, most researches do agree with the idea that exposure to poverty does undermine children and adolescents’ chances to become the productive members of society; they often tend to refer to the discussed subject matter from qualitatively different perspectives.

In this paper, we will aim to substantiate the validity of an earlier articulated suggestion at length by summarizing and critically analyzing three peer-reviewed articles, concerned with exploration of different aspects of a childhood poverty theme, in relation to a number of education-related issues.


Guo, G. (1998). The timing of the influences of cumulative poverty on children’s cognitive ability and achievement. Social Forces, 77(1), 257-287.

In her article, Guo hypothesized that educational effects of children’s exposure to poverty should be discussed within the context of what accounts for children’s academic ‘ability’ and ‘achievement’, as according to the author, these two concepts are being qualitatively different.

Whereas, children’s educational ability has clearly defined inborn subtleties, the extent of their educational achievement appears to be rather environmentally then biologically predetermined. What is means is that, it is during the course of their adolescent years that students’ exposure to poverty is being particularly contra-beneficial, in educational sense of this word.

In order to substantiate the validity of such her hypothesis, Guo conducted a longitudinal analysis of an available sociological data, in regards to the spatially defined characteristics of 12686 youths’ academic successfulness, through years 1979-1992: “The original national sample of the NLSY included a total of 12,686 youths aged 14-21 as of January 1, 1979, with African Americans, Hispanics, and economically disadvantaged Whites oversampled. Starting in 1986, the cognitive outcomes of the children of the female youth were assessed every two years in 1986, 1988, 1990, and 1992” (p. 265).

As it appears, Guo’s empirical findings do in fact support the soundness of study’s initial hypothesis – according to these findings, it makes so much more sense discussing the effects of poverty on children’s educational achievement rather than on their educational ability per se: “Empirical findings support the achievement hypothesis that poverty experienced during early adolescence after childhood is particularly important for achievement” (p. 282).

It is needless to mention, of course, that such author’s conclusion subtly undermines the legitimacy of strictly environmental approaches to dealing with the issue of children’s academic inadequacy. And, since there are many good reasons to consider these approaches as essentially anti-scientific, it will not be much of an exaggeration, on our part to refer to article’s discursive conclusion as truly enlightening.

The foremost strength of Guo’s study is that in it, author succeeded with substantiating the full soundness of an idea that children’s exposure to poverty cannot possibly be thought of as only the factor that contributes to the lessening of their chances to attain good education. In its turn, this undermines the conceptual validity of a number of currently active social-assistance programs, designed to help ‘underprivileged’ youths to make the best of their lives, such as Head Start.

Therefore, the value of study’s apparent innovativeness should not be regarded as ‘thing in itself’ – by having proven the fact that it is methodologically inappropriate to think that the exposure to poverty undermines children’s cognitive abilities, as it is being commonly assumed nowadays, Guo had revealed the sheer fallaciousness of the most fundamental tenets of ‘multiculturalism’, as the concept based upon irrational belief in people’s equality.

At the same time, it would be wrong to suggest that Guo’s study does not feature any weaknesses. For example, even though author had admitted the inborn subtleties of one’s rate of IQ, throughout the empirical part of her research, she did not bother to outline the correlatives between children’s ability to indulge in abstract reasoning and the particulars of their racial affiliation.

Also, study’s overall conclusion: “The substantial effects of childhood poverty on childhood ability suggest considerable benefits from early intervention programs such as Head Start for young children” (p. 283), does not seem to correlate with earlier articulated idea that young children’s genetically predetermined cognitive abilities cannot be facilitated to a considerable extent by the mean of an environmental intervention.

Rank, M. & Hirschl, T. (1999). The economic risk of childhood in America: Estimating the probability of poverty across the formative years. Journal of Marriage and Family, 61(4), 1058-1067.

In introductory part of their study, authors came up with a hypothesis that: “Being Black [child], residing in a non-married household, and having a head of household with fewer than 12 years of education will substantially increase the probability of [him or her] experiencing poverty” (p. 1060).

In order to test the validity of such their hypothesis, authors embarked upon analyzing the significance of a statistical data, relevant to the discussed subject matter, contained in PSID (Panel Study of Income Dynamics) representative samples from 1968 to 1992. Rank and Hirschl describe study’s methodological apparatus as follows: “Approximately 4,800 U.S. households were interviewed [throughout the course of this period].

The interviews included detailed information on roughly 18,000 individuals in those households” (p. 1060). After having conducted a qualitative analysis of collected data, authors defined data’s implications as follows: “By the age of 6, 57% of Black children will have experienced at least 1 year of poverty, compared with 15% of White children” (p. 1062). Such conclusion, of course, does confirm the validity of study’s initial hypothesis.

It appears that Rank and Hirschl study’s main strength is the fact that in it, authors have succeeded in substantiating the initial hypothesis with empirically collected sociological data. Nevertheless, it did not prevent them from coming up with clearly fallacious statements, throughout study’s entirety.

For example, while articulating what had prompted them to embark upon their study, in the first place, authors state: “Although several studies have looked at the longitudinal dynamics of child poverty, none has calculated the age-specific and cumulative probabilities of experiencing poverty during the complete span of childhood” (p. 1059).

And yet, the earlier mentioned study by Guo, conducted one year earlier, had essentially the same objective with that of Rank and Hirschl. Also, due to their self-evident nature, the conclusions of this particular article can be the least referred to as such that provide readers with qualitatively new insights onto children poverty’s spatial characteristics and onto educational effects of children’s exposure to poverty.

After all, one does not have to hold PhD in sociology to be aware of the fact that the children of uneducated and impoverished Blacks will be less likely to become graduates, as compared to what it is being the case with White children from the families of highly paid professionals.

Moreover, the analysis of an obtained data, featured in Rank and Hirschl’s study, cannot be thought of as fully appropriate, in contextual sense of this word. For example, according to the authors: “69% of Black children in non-married households… whose head had fewer than 12 years of education, experienced poverty.

In contrast, 26% of White children in married-couple families, and 24% of children in households whose head had 12 or more years of education encountered poverty” (p. 1066). And yet, the very context of such juxtaposition implies its discursive irrelevancy, as authors have failed at substantiating the suitability of drawing parallels between poverty rates in White married-couple families and in Black single-parent families.

Epps, E. (1995). Race, class, and educational opportunity: Trends in the sociology of education. Sociological Forum, 10(4), 593-608.

In his article, Epps aimed to outline what accounts for currently dominant approaches towards researching the educational effects of childhood poverty, and to examine the extent of these approaches’ methodological validity. According to the author, there are two clearly defined trends in how social scientists address the dialectical relationship between children’s exposure to poverty and the subtleties of their educational attainment – ‘biological’ and ‘environmental’.

Whereas; the proponents of an environmental approach, such as Gordon, Green and Ogbu, suggest that there is nothing dialectically predetermined in the fact that very often, children’s likelihood to be exposed to poverty correlates with the specifics of their parents’ racial affiliation, the proponents of biological approach, such as Steele, Castenell and Grant, imply that the negative effects of poverty on the extent of children’s educational successfulness are being exaggerated.

Even though, while providing readers with the insight on what accounts for both approaches’ theoretical premises, Epps had made a point in trying not to sound overly opinionated, article’s conclusion implies that it would be quite inappropriate to think of the validity of either of these approaches as representing an undeniable truth-value: “I conclude that the race vs. class question is too simplistic.

Obviously, both factors are at work and they interact in different ways depending upon the person’s or family’s position in the race/class structure” (p. 605). In its turn, the realization of this fact had prompted author to end his article by suggesting that the additional research must be conducted on the essence of correlative links between children’s poverty and the extent of their academic attainment.

The foremost strength of Epps’s article is the fact that many issue-related empirical observations, contained in it, encourage readers to adopt analytical rather than moralistic perspective onto educational effects of childhood poverty. For example, by pointing out to the fact that: “Black high school graduates are still less likely than white graduates to take advanced science and mathematics courses or study a foreign language” (p. 594), author was able to show the lessened extent of strictly environmental approaches’ conceptual soundness.

At the same time, just as it is being the case in earlier mentioned study by Gou, author deliberately strived to avoid discussing controversial issues, related to article’s discursive content.

For example, while relating how different authors discussed the issue of how children’s cognitive capacity defines their chances to attain social prominence, Epps consciously refrained from making references to the instrument of such capacity’s measurement – namely, IQ tests. Therefore, the fact that, while working on his article, author never ceased being engaged with the paradigm of political correctness, undermines the validity of article’s analytical insights rather considerably.


Despite the fact that the authors of earlier reviewed articles had succeeded in enlightening readers onto a number of subject-related discursive viewpoints, it appears that they adopted a conceptually misleading outlook onto effects of poverty on children’s academic achievement. The reason for this is simple – as the context of reviewed materials implies, their authors do subscribe to the idea that students’ inability to succeed in academia derives out of their exposal to poverty.

And yet, as many of today’s sociological, anthropological and biological studies indicate, it is namely poverty that should be thought of as such that derives out of people’s lowered educational abilities, and not vice versa. Even though that the exposure to poverty does negatively affect the extent of children’s academic achievement, such exposure does not seem to have much of an effect on children’s genetically predetermined educational ability.

As it was pointed out by Vanhanen and Lynn (2002): “There is a positive correlation between brain size and intelligence… Black infants reared by White middle class adoptive parents in the United States show no improvement in intelligence, contrary to the prediction of environmental theory and consistent with a genetic explanation of the lower average IQ of Blacks” (p. 1994).

In its turn, this explains why it was namely after the policy of multiculturalism has gained an official status in Western countries, that poverty started to be increasingly blamed for ‘ethnically unique’ children’s often clearly defined intellectual deficiency.

Apparently, the advocates of multiculturalism have simply been trying to divert people’s attention from the fact that it is namely the particulars of children’s genetic makeup that define the extent of their educational successfulness more than anything else. This partially explains why poverty is being usually discussed within the context of how it affects the educational prospects of specifically non-White ‘underprivileged’ children, as if there were no impoverished White or Asian youths in existence.

This also explains why, even though in earlier reviewed articles, authors have gone a great length, while expounding on the subject of poverty’s negative effects on children’s education, neither of them bothered to come up with comprehensive definition of the very term ‘poverty’.

Therefore, it will only be logical, on our part, to conclude this paper by reinstating once again that, even though children’s exposure to poverty does lessen their chances of getting a good education, under no circumstances should it be considered as the main obstacle of on the way of these children striving to become society’s well-educated productive members.


Epps, Edgar (1995). Race, class, and educational opportunity: Trends in the sociology of education. Sociological Forum, 10(4), 593-608.

Guo, G. (1998). The timing of the influences of cumulative poverty on children’s cognitive ability and achievement. Social Forces, 77(1), 257-287.

Hamburg, D. (1985). Reducing the casualties of early life: A preventive orientation. New York, Carnegie Corporation.

Lynn, R. & Vanhanen, T. (2002). IQ and the wealth of nations, Westport, CT., Greenwood Publishing Group.

Rank, M. & Hirschl, T. (1999). The economic risk of childhood in America: Estimating the probability of poverty across the formative years. Journal of Marriage and Family, 61(4), 1058-1067.

Seccombe, K. (2000). Families in poverty in the 1990s: Trends, causes, consequences, and lessons learned. Journal of Marriage and Family, 62(4), 1094-1113.


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