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. On a certain level, I do see the argument. The number 1 indicator of student success is parental involvement. I know that if my mother and I didn’t lean hard on him, my brother probably wouldn’t have graduated high school.
    But I don’t see how blaming the school helps at all. Blame being poor, blame poor past choices that now put your children at a disadvantage. But if you are a homeless tweaker, the best school on the planet isn’t going to help if you are too high to make sure they go.

    1. Unless she was high out of her mind, you’d think school would be the absolute most important place to be, if for no other reason than free meals. However, by middle school, kids are already skipping and hanging out at the skate park. You have to start early. If you don’t I don’t know what the answer is.

  2. While I have never been poor (thankfully), I spent a good majority of my career working with very poor people and the hardest part is putting aside many middle class values that we have. For a number of these parents, they don’t have the skills to make the good choices that many of our parents made because no one taught them. It’s cyclical, and while sad, it’s what a number of them are passing on to their children because they don’t know any differently. They’ve been taught that it’s the “government’s” job to take care of the and, when that fails, they don’t know how to look inside themselves and fix it.

    Yes, all of the factors you listed contribute to a child doing poorly in school. And the parents’ role is essential in giving kids a good education. Even in a “bad” school, children with engaged parents can succeed. And they do. But, as so many others pointed out, it has to start at home. Where that fails is the parents not knowing what to do. So then we get to the question of whose responsibility is it to teach them?

    Sorry. I’ll stop now. I could go on about this for a while.

    1. I just think somehow it has to come back to the parent at least making sure kids show up form an early age, even in preschool. Maybe increase aid if their kids have good attendance and decrease it if they don’t? But then the kids take a hit with no food in the house. No good answer except don’t have kids you can’t care for, but how do you prevent that either?

  3. As a teacher, I see this quite often. People blaming others for their problems. Poverty is not the cause it is the result of doing poorly in school, poor parenting and previous failures. They may not have good role models, but the way out of poverty is education. If the mother would insist on her kids to perform to a higher standard, they may change. I think we expect too much from individuals (parents) who put themselves in these situations. She only knows failure how can we expect her to succeed? I would think her kids are just repeating what their mother did.

  4. Poverty is not an excuse, the lack of parental motivation is generally the factor. Here I have one friend who reads regularly. Even BF who is an ex lawyer and privileged doesn’t open a book more than once a year. There is a free library in my village. Some kids are incredibly motivated and do great at school, even though their families are poor. All the parents who really want to put their kids through school can do it and a scholarship is provided for the poorest to make up for the money they don’t earn by working in the fields. The woman may have had 7 kids it is not an excuse, the school is not a baby sitting service, it is something to build on the rest of your education.

    1. I think there are also very rich people who ignore their kids. Maybe that is just as bad, but doesn’t get the attention because they are well dressed and fed and don’t lack for basic necessities. I don’t understand why people have kids they don’t want to interact and grow with.

  5. I don’t think poverty should be an acceptable excuse to poorly in school, but I suspect by many parents and even some teachers, it is an acceptable excuse. While this mom has undoubtedly led a hard life, it doesn’t appear that she wants her children to have a better future, which means having a good education. Perhaps she is fulfilling the destiny her parents expected for her and she is simply preparing her kids to fulfill a similar destiny of poverty and little hope. And that makes me incredibly sad.

    1. I don’t know what switches off that light of wanting your kids to always do better than you. Mabye it gets burned out when you have to struggle so much just to survive?

  6. Hard for me to say, as I have never been in “poverty”. In her shoes, it’s got to be AMAZINGLY TOUGH to get motivated, and to look at the big picture. I know when I get stressed, I get miopic, and can’t see past the end of my nose, let alone years down the road. So that’s probably plays into the picture, because poverty is stressful, and so is raising kids. And I know she made the choices, but it sounds like she needs some encouragement (A LOT OF IT) to get her to realize she needs to stop blaming poverty and make the choices within her power to help her kids succeed.

    So, in some ways, it’s both. Yes, it’s an excuse, but no, it’s not acceptable. Blaming this lady for her past sins won’t help her see that there is a better future for her kids, but she needs to do the same thing and stop making excuses. Tough call. Thanks for this post, helps us all think outside of out litle bubbles 🙂

    1. No, looking at the past does absolutely no good. I do think there is such a fine line between getting by and not making it that it’s easy to give up when you fall over the line in some way.

  7. I think this type of “passing the buck” behavior permeates far more than the poor in our society. It’s quite sad that people aren’t willing to accept responsibility and work hard to create a better situation for themselves. That being said, at least this woman now has the Sonic job–I hope she keeps it!

    1. It’s a start. I do think when you barely get by and having some income might cut other benefits, it is much easier to quit.

  8. I think it’s a combination of factors here, but it always starts with the parents. As parents, we are the ones raising our kids, we are the ones setting the foundations. Many people substitute the word “parent” with “school” and just expect the kids to turn out fine.

    1. I would never assume it’s the school that has to make my child behave or do homework or fill in the blank. If I don’t expect that at home, it really doesn’t matter what is expected at school.

  9. This was really interesting. It’s so disheartening to hear about things like that. There’s really only so much a teacher can do, it comes down to expectations, support and motivation at home. I hope that the kids wise-up themselves and are able to work things out. One of my coworkers grew up as one of several children in a home supported by a very low income single mother. Thanks to combinations of social programming we have (ie school loans, grants and affordable tuition here), plus support and expectations and decent schools, he’s now in the upper 25% in Canada. At age 24. Those are the outcomes I prefer to see!!

  10. It sounds like the school has to be part of this problem if you won’t even send your own child there. Yes I think being poor “can”(not always) have an impact on how your child does in school in certain situations. People that work 72 hours a week do not get to help their children with school support and homework as much as someone who does not work as much or at all.(–I do believe that education starts with the parents and no matter how poor can teach their children the importance of education–) People that work insane hours and are still poor! can’t afford the best day care/babysitting options as well. We are not all lucky enough to have family support either. I can not speak much about the woman with 7 children as I have not walked in her shoes and do not know the situation but I doubt working at Sonic will give her 40 hours a week. It is also hard for me to believe someone can draw over 900 in TANF but I have not researched this and my understanding of what I thought I knew is if you work at all you will not qualify for those benefits in any shape or form but maybe I have it all wrong. I believe some people abuse the system and yes better programs should be in place so it can’t be abused but that is going to costs tax dollars as well. I can’t believe that some people would not want their tax dollars going to help poor Americans but the other taxes they pay are what fine with them? Our tax dollars go for far worse things than helping out the poor in our country and I am proud to be able to help them any way that I can. –More programs for making dead beat parents pay support are needed as well. I am in no way downing your post just giving my own opinion because I do think being poor can have an effect on children doing well in school.–And also for most people it takes everything they have to go in and fill that form out for assistance–this is not an easy task mentally for anyone that truly needs help.

    1. This is exactly the kinds of comments I was hoping for. I am certainly no expert on TANF, but I did have a former employee who hooked up with a deadbeat boyfriend. They had a couple of kids, and she was able to get all sorts of benefits with a salary of almost $25K/year. I think she counted him as part of the family for some of them and some it was better to say she was single. She was very smart and knew all the right answers, but I can see how that would be difficult for someone who never graduated from high school and who maybe didn’t have transportation to get to the office. Thanks for commenting.

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