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Perspective | Poverty hinders education; schools fight poverty

Public education serves as societal infrastructure indispensable to breaking the transmission of poverty from one generation to the next. But of course, poverty among students and their families burdens and challenges schools.

North Carolina has 800 high-poverty schools, including both traditional public schools and publicly funded charter schools. In general, these schools perform at lower academic levels than schools filled with students of middle-class and affluent families.

Reducing the number of students weighted down in poverty would lift burdens and strengthen the state’s educational prospects. In effect, therefore, not only poor people but also schools took a hit as the enhanced federal child tax credit expired this week.

Under the pandemic “rescue” package enacted last spring, the tax credit was increased in dollars and designed so that families receive payments each month rather than a lump sum at tax time. Researchers have estimated that the expanded child tax credit would reduce the incidence of poverty by 40%.

The Biden administration’s Build Back Better legislation would extend the enhanced credit for a year. Objections to the multi-faceted legislation from all Republicans and two Democrats have forestalled a vote in the U.S. Senate.

Using Census survey data, the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently reported that most lower-income families spent monthly payments on “on basic necessities — housing, food, clothing, and utilities — and education.” As education expenses, they spent money on books and supplies, tuition, tutoring, transportation, and after-school programs.

The CBPP report also provides state-by-state estimates of the scope of the child tax credit. In October 2021, the report says, monthly payments went to 1.18 million North Carolina families. If the credit is not extended, it says, 2.08 million children under 18 years old “would lose out.”

In a report released in December, the N.C. Poverty Research Fund pulls together the most recent data on child poverty and hunger in the state. The fund shows that poverty rates for children under 18 fell through the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, but went up between 2008 and 2019, when 19.5% North Carolina youngsters lived in poverty, above the national rate of 16.8%.

Also, nearly six out of 10 school students qualify for free and reduced lunch. The qualification includes not only students living in poverty but also living in lower-income households not far above the poverty line. The pandemic exposed how critical school meals have become.

Written by UNC law professor Gene Nichol and research associate Heather Hunt, the fund report points to the trend toward concentrated poverty. More than 1 million children live in high-poverty neighborhoods, in major cities as well as spread across less populous communities. 

“Concentrated poverty stifles children’s prospects,” Nichol and Hunt write. “Recent scholarship has shown that where a child grows up has a dramatic influence on his or her chance of success later in life… The more time a child spends in a low opportunity place, the greater the effect. Among the characteristics that distinguish low opportunity neighborhoods are concentrated poverty, racial and economic segregation, struggling schools, weaker measures of social capital, and greater income inequality.”

North Carolina needs the extension of the federal child tax credit as well as the investments in early childhood and family well-being programs in the House-passed Build Back Better legislation. For its own part, North Carolina needs an all-out effort focused on high-poverty/low-performing schools so that the state propels many more young people toward the American dream of upward mobility and the pursuit of happiness.

Ferrel Guillory
Ferrel Guillory serves on the board of directors of EducationNC and is professor of the practice emeritus at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.