Child Poverty and Homelessness Affect Education

Housing & Homelessness
Poverty & Family Economics

The past two weeks have brought data releases with encouraging news regarding child poverty and bad news regarding child homelessness. Both data releases have important implications for education, as the children represented in the data sets have recently started another school year.

First, the encouraging news: in 2013 child poverty decreased for the first time since 2000. This good news comes with a major caveat, though. The child poverty rate is still significantly higher than the poverty rate for all other age groups. In 2013, 19.9 percent of children under age 18 lived in poverty (income of $23,624 for a family of four), while the poverty rate for ages 18-64 was 13.9 percent and for ages 65 and over it was 9.5 percent. While it is encouraging to see that anti-poverty initiatives such as the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit have contributed to lowering the child poverty rate for the first time in 13 years, it is clear that we have a long way to go to significantly reduce child poverty.

Child poverty has significant implications for educational achievement. Children living in poverty confront a host of challenges outside of the classroom that their wealthier peers do not, starting with being less likely to attend pre-K, and often including unstable housing, lack of school supplies, and, though free and reduced price meals and SNAP both help, lack of adequate nutrition. Additionally, poverty rates for children of color are significantly higher than for their white peers. As a result, 52 percent of Hispanic students and 49 percent of black students attend a high-poverty school (a school where more than 75 percent of students qualify for free and reduced price school meals), compared to only 7 percent of white students. In the real world, this means schools spend about $334 less per student on students of color than on their white peers, and students of color are significantly more likely than their white peers to attend schools with a concentration of unlicensed teachers and teachers in their first year in the classroom. To close academic achievement gaps we should focus on closing opportunity gaps, including reducing child poverty, particularly for children of color.

Now the worse news: in the 2012-2013 academic year over 1.2 million students in public school were homeless, 8 percent more than the previous year and 85 percent more than at the beginning of the recession. Though the child poverty rate is decreasing, student homelessness is continuing to rise, presenting significant challenges for students who must deal with the instability that comes with being homeless. As a result, students live in uncomfortable or dangerous conditions, and may not have a quiet place to do homework every night or not have a place to sleep. Ultimately, homeless students transfer schools more often, are more likely to miss school, have lower standardized test scores, and are 87 percent more likely to leave school than their peers.

With the population of homeless students rising even as overall child poverty falls, the federal government can do more to ensure that every student has access to a great education. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office found that federal oversight of the Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) initiative is lacking, meaning the initiative is implemented with varying degrees of effectiveness by district. Furthermore, in fiscal year 2013 (which funded the 2012-2013 school year when over 1.2 million students were homeless), EHCY was funded at $61.6 million, or less than $50 for each homeless student, clearly not enough to meet the challenges these students face. Furthermore, federal law currently excludes about 81 percent of these homeless students from housing initiatives offered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The bipartisan Homeless Children and Youth Act, currently in both the House and Senate, would ensure that homeless children are eligible for HUD initiatives, while increasing oversight and funding for EHCY programs would improve educational outcomes for homeless students.

Additionally, schools that offer wraparound services, such as schools and districts that use the community schools model to bring community services into the school, can help students meet the challenges of both poverty and homelessness. These schools can offer afterschool programs, tutoring, mentoring, health clinics, and social workers to students and their families. These services help students overcome the obstacles of living in poverty or attending school while homeless, ultimately increasing academic achievement, including increasing attendance and overall GPA while decreasing grade retention and dropout rates.