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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.

About Kim Parr

Kim Parr is a private practice optometrist, freelance writer, and personal financial blogger. You can follow her journey to 20/20 financial vision at Eyes on the Dollar.


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

    • 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.

  5. 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.

    • 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

    • 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

    • 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.

  11. 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.

    • 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.

  12. 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!!

  13. 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.

    • 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.

  14. 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!

  15. 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 🙂

    • 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.

  16. 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.

    • 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?

  17. 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.

    • 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

    • 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?

  20. 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.

    • 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.

  21. 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.

    • 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.

  22. My cousin, who’s an educator, put it best, I think. “At parent teacher conferences, the only parents I see are the ones I don’t need to see.”

    • 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.

  23. 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.

    • 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.

  24. 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.

    • 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?

  25. 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

  26. 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…

    • 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.

  27. 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.

    • 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.

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