Is Poverty in the United States an Excuse to do Poorly in School?

poverty in schoolsFor the most part I love the rural area of the country where we’ve chosen to live. It fits our needs and desires, and we’ve been able to make a good living here.  However, there is a large percentage of the population that lives below the poverty line. My husband will be completing a master’s degree in education administration this summer. Recently, as a practicum requirement, he has been observing parent conference at the middle school. Instead of accepting responsibility and working toward a better the situation, all of the parents blamed being poor in some way for why their child was having difficulty in schools. It leads to the question, is poverty in the United States an excuse to do poorly in school?

Poor School Performance

The district in which my husband works is not a good school district. That’s one of the reasons we decided to send our daughter out of district for kindergarten. It has one high school, which graduates around 60% of the kids who start as freshmen. Recently, a new superintendent is working very hard to change that percentage, and the middle and high schools are trying to increase parent involvement. If a child is not doing well, a mandatory parent conference is required. Basically, you are called for a conference if your child is failing, isn’t showing up for school, or is involved in repeated behavioral violations. My husband sat in on several conferences last week, and all of the students having problems lived well below the federal poverty line. I’ll highlight the general theme with this example.

Blaming the System

This parent blamed everything on society. She was a single mother of 7 children and a former drug user. Her first words were,

“I look like a tweaker, but I’m not a tweaker. I’m poor. I have 7 children. We’ve been homeless, but now I have a job.”

Her children had poor attendance, and her blame was on the fact that she was poor, had too many of them, and she had been homeless.She blamed the school and teachers. I suppose if she had more money and the teachers were better, her kids would be doing fine in school.

Who is to Blame?

It might be easy to blame bad behavior on teachers or schools, but how on earth are you ever going to get anywhere in life if you can’t get along with people you don’t necessarily agree with? Unless you are independently wealthy and never have to work for anyone, you will run across a teacher, boss, or upper level employee that you have to answer to. Not showing up because you don’t like them or can’t get along doesn’t move you very far in life.

I’m sure it’s hard to worry about getting your kids to school if you have no food or shelter, but that’s a great place for them to be. At least you know they will be safe and have two meals a day.

What’s the Solution?

I don’t know that there is an easy solution, but I do know that without a high school diploma or any sort of marketable skills,  short of winning American Idol, the best you can hope for is working minimum wage and living paycheck to paycheck. I suppose you could qualify for some sort of aid. It seems that being low income is generally all that is required.

My personal belief is that anyone receiving government aid has to make sure their children attend school. Not that attending guarantees a better life, but not attending pretty much assures more of the same.

At least this lady is trying. She has job at Sonic, which at minimum wage and 40 hours per week, should net her about $1282 per month. She would be eligible for many services.

  • She can qualify for low income housing. Her max out of pocket for a subsidized low income apartment would be 30% of her net income, so $384 per month. If she stopped working, she would pay $0 and wouldn’t be on the street.
  • She could probably get TANF assistance, which has a montly max benefit of $946 for a family of 8.
  • They would all qualify for Medicaid, which would cover all of the children for preventative and medical care and her for emergencies and medical problems.
  • They could get up to $700 a month in LiHEAP assistance for heating bills.
  • I couldn’t find exact guidelines for food stamps, but from my work with low income clinics, I know that a family with 7 children receives around $900 per month for food.

She could get by. She has to stay off drugs or she will lose her apartment, and if she smokes or has cable, or spends money on any sort of non-necessity, this takes a huge chunk of her take home pay.

Who is Paying?

For this example, taxpayers are covering most of this family’s basic necessities. This is not a political argument for or against taxes. As long as Mom is working and trying, I don’t mind helping her out. I think all kids deserve food, shelter, and adequate medical care. It does bother me when those who choose not to work are able to contribute little to society, but take lots.

Accepting Responsibility

This lady does need to accept responsibility. I have no idea, but I bet she grew up in poverty herself. She may not have had good role models, but It was her choice to have children she knew she couldn’t support. It was her choice to use drugs. Her lack of funding does not give her an excuse not to be a better person for her children. She can’t control every circumstance, but she has to stop blaming everything else. The least she can do is get those kids on the school bus and participate in their lives.

I guess this is easy for me to say.  I’ve never had to worry about if I was going to eat or if I had a warm place to sleep.  I could argue that her monthly per person food budget is more than mine, but that’s by my choice. I could spend more on food, but I choose to do other things with my money. Does having choices about what to do with your money make you a better parent? Do you feel less empowered if most of your money comes in the form of assistance, or do you love the fact that you didn’t have to do much other than fill out forms and meet with a case worker?

Please share your opinions, especially if you have broken the cycle of poverty or have received public assistance in any way.

Written By
Sydney White is a Texas-born stay at home mom who enjoys spending time with her family, bargain hunting and, of course, writing. She is currently the editor-in-chief of


  1. This is a great post. I think it has to do with a mixture of factors. While I didn’t necessarily grow up in poverty, we did have problems. My parents divorced when I was younger and my mom gambled all the child support away every month and she didn’t care if we learned anything. Yes, she wanted us to be smart so that we could support her when she’s old, but that was it. She never once helped me with homework. I think since I was so determined at such a young age to be successful in life, that is what helped me. I took a lot of responsibility on at a young age and I do think at some point, kids are somewhat responsible.

    1. I think most people continue with what they know, and then there are those few who are determined to be different, no matter how hard that might be. You are a great example of that. I also think of the homeless girl who went to Harvard. Her name escapes me right now, or Michael Oher, the kid from the Blindside movie. Of course, they both had adults (not relatives) who stepped up and helped along the way.

  2. I agree that I think it would be stressful to be the parent of 7 children and feel that stress of being poor, as well as being the child and probably taking on some of that worry, but that IS the circumstance and the cycle will never be broken unless someone (the parent, the child, and to some extent I’d think, the school) owns up to taking responsibility. Depending on the age of the child, I think most of the responsibility is in the hands of the parent, but at some point if you are a teenager, you can shoulder a lot of that responsibility yourself. I did not grow up poor, but I have no parents around when I was in high school. My brother took the blame route and did nothing for himself, and I knew if I wanted to get out of that mess I had to work hard. It sucked, but I did it. Anyway, just one person’s opinion.

  3. I don’t think its an excuse at all. I grew up in a relatively rough part of my city where grades were low, but if you actually get your head down and study hard there nothing that can stop you from getting the grades you deserve.

  4. I think it all has to start at home. For starters, if you can’t afford to have 7 kids, invest in a pack of condoms ($12 costs much less than the total to have and raise a kid–or at least keep it in your pants). I’m not a parent, so I won’t pretend to know how difficult or easy it is to raise a well-rounded kid, but I do know that it isn’t difficult to lay the foundation for success. It isn’t hard to say “look at where we are; this is because I screwed up and if you do the same things I do you won’t ever be in a better situation.” It isn’t difficult to plant the seeds early about how important it is to learn to read, even if you as a parent can’t always be there.

    I’ve seen it growing up. My high school bordered the harbor, which was pretty much junk yards and trash and an abandoned train yard. It was a miserable area, and many of the friends I made who lived there (we had to travel 30 minutes by bus to get there since that was our “designated” school) came from broken and/or poor households, but there were a large number of highly intelligent and high-performing students in my classes.

    At the same time, the system has to take some blame as well. The teachers have to want to help the students, not take the job because of all of the days off and recesses. The school districts need to be able to find a way to provide the materials necessary. The bottom line is that it’s an all-around failure when a kid fails for the most part.

    1. You can actually get birth control for free at the health department or Planned Parenthood. I can understand one surprise maybe, but 7?

      I think there are certainly good and bad teachers, but lots of the resources are going into cases like this one, that probably aren’t going to have a happy ending. It gets discouraging, and takes away from the kids who do want to be there and are there to learn.

  5. Ditto, Holly. All, google Dr. Benjamin Carson, a world reknowned pediatric neurosurgeon and listen to the youtube video of the speech he gave this year at the White House for the National Day of Prayer. Dr. Carson, an African-American, grew up poor: dirt poor in a way that we could probably never imagine. So why now is he such a success? Because, he says, his mom simply did not allow him to fail. She drove discipline and education into his head and would not allow him to make excuses, and the woman did not even know how to read. Parent involvement is key to your child’s success in the education route you’ve chosen for them.

  6. Good post Kim! While I think it is possible that a school might be partially responsible, I believe that in the large majority of cases the parents are to blame. I think that many of thinking that because they send their kids to school that they are not responsible for their children’s education, and that is simply not the case. I think we’re called as parents to be involved…reading with them, helping them with homework when they need it and overall taking an active role. I would agree that this woman probably was raised in poverty, which would mean the cycle is likely to continue.

    At the end of the day, it’s much easier to blame shift as opposed to looking at one’s own circumstances and making changes to better benefit those around you, which sounds like it might be the case here.

    1. There probably were lots of people who let her down in her life, but at some point, you have to stand up for yourself and try to change. Otherwise, don’t complain.

  7. My totally uneducated opinion is that parents are the fault. For instance, my mother was extremely poor…they had 7 children in a two bedroom house. My mom had a drawer in a dresser to her name and shared a bed with her two sisters. Anyway, all 7 kids grew up to be successful including a few millionaires. Why? Because my grandparents were hands on parents and encouraged them to do well.

    1. My mom also grew up very poor with 6 kids, who slept 3 to a bed. They worked hard and grew,raised, or made everything they had. While none of them went to college, they all graduated high school and became productive people. You have to have some standards from and early age. You can’t sleep all day and stay out all night and just magically expect that your kids are going to get up and go to school. Maybe a few might, but most are going to stay home and watch TV, or worse, prowl the streets if you aren’t on top of it.

  8. I read a book once that showed that the thing that really sets apart students is how involved their parents are in their lives in the summer. Are they reading books? Are they getting some sort of education when they are outside of school? It can make a drastic difference. In that sense, poverty could hurt a child’s chances (if their parent has to work two jobs and they never see them in the summer), but it really comes down to how involved the parent is and whether the child is being forced to continue their learning through the summer.

  9. The quality of a good education begins at home with the parents willingness to make sure their children understand what they have learned in scholl and when necessary, explaining a concept or a fact further. I took this one step further. I taught all of my children how to read before the schools had a chance. Why? Because I still believe that the schools are force feeding sight reading disguised as phonetics to our kids (sorry if I offend any educators out there). So I took matter into my own hands and using the classic, “Why Johnny Can’t Read” taught them myself. To this day all of them are exceptional readers and have always been A/B students in language arts, even when academically challenged in other areas.

  10. I don’t agree at all that poverty is an excuse to do poorly in school. When I was growing up several of my friends were immigrants. They didn’t speak English, grew up in poverty, and some had single parents (not sure you can start off more disadvantaged than that combo). But their parents emphasized education. And you know what? Those kids did well in school, and went to college, and got good jobs.

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