The Worst of Times: Children in Extreme Poverty in the South and Nation

Steve Suitts
The Southern Education Fund
2010

This report by the Southern Education Fund paints a stark picture of our nation’s children living in poverty, and the impact it has on their education. The number of children living in extreme poverty has risen considerably during the last decade – in 2008 more than 5.7 million children lived in extreme poverty conditions.  Though these children are concentrated largely in the South, the report singles out Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan as non-southern states with high levels of child poverty. 

The 10.5 percent unemployment rate in Ohio is just one indicator of the hard economic times that this state is facing, and children are feeling the impact of the recession. Nine percent of children in Ohio live at or below 50 percent of the poverty level (or, roughly $11,100 total annual income for a family of four).  Furthermore, among the 100 school districts with the highest poverty rates nationally, Ohio shows up 14 times, with Warren City Schools in Trumbull County sitting atop the list.  Thirty-five percent of its students live in extreme poverty.  Three other Ohio districts – East Cleveland, Youngstown, and Portsmouth – were also noted for having more than one in four students in extreme poverty; and Ohio has three districts which reported no children living in extreme poverty.

What do these dire stats mean for children’s education? 

Children born into poverty-stricken families face challenges right from the start.  They will be exposed to and learn fewer words, will be read books less frequently, and rarely attend museums or educational exhibits. When these children enter kindergarten they are far behind the average income student, and are forced to play catch up. Some students even come in without knowing basic colors and have never been read to. 

Education can be one of the most effective means to help get young people out of poverty.  While a good education does not mean an end to poverty, it can help to equip children with the necessary skills and lessons to lift themselves out of it and end the cycle. Despite these facts most states and local governments struggle to adequately address the needs of children in poverty.  The report laments that state departments of education have only a few programs to address the needs of the extreme poor, most notably the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program. Ohio’s school funding system allots additional funding for disadvantaged children; however, the state has little ability to require districts to spend the additional funding on the students it is intended to benefit. This isn’t to say that other state and local agencies aren’t combating child poverty (through a variety of initiatives related to children’s health, child care, early learning, etc. or through subsidies directly to poor families). But the report should at least raise alarm regarding the number of Ohio children falling into poverty, and instill a sense of urgency around improving educational outcomes especially for these youngsters. Read it here

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