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. Pingback: Friday recap 23
  2. New reader, great blog! This is a great post. As a former teacher in a low income school district, I hate to say it, but the majority of the parents were not involved in their kids’ educations. Some worked two jobs, some didn’t care, and more than one came out and told the school it was our job to babysit for them (My jaw dropped so far I thought it would hit the floor the first time I heard this).

    I do have to say the schools are to blame in part. At our school, the attitude was to feel sorry for the kids. This was fine to a point, but we weren’t able to hold kids accountable for homework due to their lives at home. We were also encouraged to pass them when they were failing miserably to boost their ego. This was supposed to drive them to “do better next time.” It was a pathetic situation that led me to ultimately quit teaching.

    1. My husband has been a teacher for almost 13 years now, and he deals with many of the same issues. It certainly takes a combination of family and a good school or at least a few good people in the school to make sure a child does well. One without the other is like a car without gas. It doesn’t get very far.

  3. No one likes excuses, but poverty is definitely a very good explanation for poor performance in school. A few thoughts:

    1. Immigrants. Immigrant communities are very different from those with generational poverty. Also, there are often huge support systems available. I’m from a major city and had several second generation immigrant friends. Their parents were hugely involved in helping the newcomers figure things out in this country as was the norm. Communities with generational poverty just don’t have that.

    2. Homelessness. Can you imagine being homeless? No, seriously. Can you? Where do you do your homework? What if “lights out” for kids is at 8pm and you don’t get bussed back to the shelter until 7pm? And if you move around a lot, you may not even know where you’ll be each night, much less where you’ll have a space to do homework.

    3. Parental involvement. This just cracks me up. Minimum wage earners often have to work multiple jobs to support their families, because most places won’t let them get near the number of hours that would require providing health insurance. Add in transportation times, and these parents are gone from the house for hours upon hours.

    4. Teachers. I firmly believe that our school system “passes the buck” by promoting kids who aren’t ready up to the next grade level, especially when they’re considered “problem children”

    5. Gov’t assistance. Section 8 housing is very difficult to come by. People often wait 8-10 years for their vouchers. And it’s relatively easy to get kicked out of Section 8 housing, too. Food stamp allowances vary by state, but for people who are actually working (even at low wages) it’s likely they aren’t getting the full amount possible because assets (like a car) are counted against your total. As for non-gov’t assistance, there are often eligibility requirements for receiving such services.

    It’s quite difficult to “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” when so many factors are weighing down on your laces…

    1. Thanks for the very insightful comment. I honestly have no idea how it would feel to be homeless, so I try not to judge. We all do have to take responsibility for ourselves. Just because you grew up poor doesn’t give you a free pass to do whatever. The decision to have 7 children while being in poverty does come with some serious consequences if you can’t take care of those kids. Giving up should not be an option.

      Social promotion is a terrible policy, but it’s reality. My husband teaches 5th grade and nothing brings non-existent parents out in force like failing their kids. I would say that 9 out of 10 parents insist their kids be passed along, at least in our experience at the elementary level.

  4. I can’t speak for what’s happening in the USA but I know growing up many families that lived in poverty. They would move to the UK hoping for a better life, didn’t speak a lick of English and the kids went to school. My one mate who is now also a doctor grew up where his mum and dad didn’t speak English well, but motivated him to do well in school. They couldn’t really help him with homework but seeing his parents suffer growing up was enough for him to say, “I don’t want a life like this”. He wanted to make his parents proud, and you know he did it. It’s a bit of everything but ultimately it’s up to the child to say, “I don’t want this life”> Great post

  5. I think the solution is for parents to take more responsibility for the education and well being of their own children. Too many parents expect someone else to raise their kids and so I think we are starting to see the results of that.

    1. Parents certainly have to lay the foundation and set forth expectations. Otherwise teachers don’t have much of a chance. If there is no consequence for not doing work or showing up, why would kids care at all?

  6. I really believe that helping children receive a good education is the parent’s responsibility. Unplugging gaming units, the television getting rid of cell phones ect… can go a long way to removing distractions and freeing up time for children to do homework. You’d be surprised how many low-income households have these items.

    1. I’m not surprised at all. When I did low income clinic for a year and a half, most of those folks who were younger, say under 35, had smartphones and gameboys, and ringtones that were downloaded and paid for. Maybe some of them were gifts, but I think any sort of windfall, tax return, etc went for stuff like that.

    1. Absolutely true, especially from 6th grade one. When my husband taught 7th grade, he might have had 5 parents show up for conferences, most of them had straight A students.

  7. It’s an interesting phenomenon when you look at immigrants that come into this country. They came here for a better like worked hard and made something for themselves. Then you look at those that are already in this country and are poor. Many have every excuse ready to spew for why they are in the situation they are in. They never take any responsibility for their situation…it’s always someone else’s fault.

    I enjoy watching documentaries especially ones on finances. Many times when they interview the poor, they have name brand clothes and brand new smartphones, yet have an issue with putting food on the table. It’s an unfortunate thing.

    1. I have a theory on that. It may be way off base, but when you get everything in the form of assistance, you take no pride in free things.Free has no value. Trash your apartment, don’t care about school, don’t value health care, etc. You do have to spend your money on clothes and electronics, so those have value, and you care for them.

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