The Cycle of Educational Failure and Poverty

Posted on January 24, 2017

Poverty is more prevalent in the U.S. public school system than ever before. A recent report found a majority of children in the U.S. public school system come from low-income households, meaning they are eligible for the Federal Free or Reduced Lunch program.

Yes, a majority — 51 percent. The report found that in 21 states, mostly in the South and West, half or more of students in public schools qualify for free or reduced lunches. In 19 additional states, students from low-income households comprise 40-49 percent of public school enrollment.

Low-income students face the significant educational setbacks and need more assistance than students from higher income homes. With rising numbers of low-income students, the public school system is struggling to provide the attention, care, and resources students need. And, students are paying the price. Students from low-income households miss educational opportunities that are vital to break the cycle of generational poverty.

Educational failure is at the crux of cyclical poverty; we can’t address one without the other. Fundamental to a child’s growth and an adult’s success, education is integral to intellectual, emotional, and physical development. Yet, every year, millions of children fall through the cracks of a broken system and lose hope for a fulfilling, prosperous life.

In Stand Together Foundation’s pursuit to find the most effective solutions to fighting poverty, we look for innovative educational solutions to give children the support they need to pursue the opportunities they deserve. These solutions include scholarship, mentoring, and after-school programs that give kids the chance for a brighter future.

A Complicated Cycle

Education and poverty are complexly tangled. Low-income children are predisposed to various obstacles at school and at home, limiting their chances for educational success. At the same time, missed educational opportunities trap children and young adults in the cycle of poverty. To best serve low-income students, we must address their unique needs.

Students from low-income households face the consequences of poverty in every area of their development. Some obstacles children from low-income homes may face include:

  • Instability and Distress. A child’s home life significantly impacts his or her academic performance. Instability, abuse, hunger, mental health, language difficulties, addiction, domestic violence, and neglect at home all have negative effects on a child’s cognitive, behavioral, and emotional development. If a child is concerned about his next meal, how is he going to focus on a math test? If she’s concerned for her safety, how is she going to focus on her homework?
  • Poor nutrition and health. Poor nutrition, less access to healthcare, and little exercise affect a child’s reasoning, memory, attention, emotional regulation, and impulse control. If their physical needs aren’t being met, students quickly fall behind in the classroom.
  • Brain development and cognition. Low-income children often perform below peers from higher socio-economic statuses on standardized tests and academic performance. A disruptive home environment, poor health, and instability can lead to distraction, attention deficits, weak vocabulary, and poor processing skills. These basic cognitive skills are critical, particularly in early childhood development.


In addition to the physical and cognitive consequences of poverty, students often lose motivation and hope for a better future. Without the support, opportunity, and encouragement to dream of something different, students don’t know how to work toward something different.

These and other various setbacks result in high dropout rates for low-income students. Students from low-income families are five times more likely to drop out of school than students from higher income families. Without a high school diploma, students have a limited earning potential compared to those with a high school or college diploma. One report found median annual income for 25- to 34- year-old adults with a college education was more than twice that of those without a high school education. The same report found a 25 percent unemployment rate among 20- to 24-year-old adults without a high school degree. Individuals without a high school diploma are more likely to be incarcerated, become single parents, and use public assistance programs – further perpetuating the cycle of dependency.

What Can We Do?

The broken educational system can’t be fixed overnight. But, we can help students tackle these barriers, gain access to better education, and have hope for a future.

While the barriers children from low-income homes face can seem insurmountable, various programs across the country invade the instability and hopelessness to provide support, encouragement, and opportunity. With one in five children in the United States living in poverty, it’s critical to identify and scale the solutions that work.

ACE Scholarships provides scholarships to low-income students in grades K-12 to attend the private school of their choice. ACE empowers families with the opportunity to choose the school that best fits their child’s needs. The right supportive academic environment for a child can have a positive impact on the whole family.

Strive addresses the pervasive issues of poverty that affect youth in the Watts community of South Los Angeles by providing an academy-par learning environment. Its strong academic after-school program is undergirded by values of self-reliance, responsibility, and stewardship. By providing a haven in the midst of chaos, Strive creates a safe, supportive environment to encourage students to excel personally and academically.

Operation Dream serves at-risk boys in Milwaukee through a peer-mentoring program that builds leadership, academic, and social skills. Programs such as a Saturday academic program for grades K-8, Operation WORK, a Sunday peer tutoring program, and more instill discipline, promote education, and engage children in the possibilities ahead of them.

Poverty is complex, and educational failure is only one aspect of a massive national issue. But, every child that gains access to a better education has the chance to break the cycle. Check back on Thursday to learn more about the power of ACE Scholarships’ model, which gives low-incomes students the option to find the best school that fits their needs.