Poverty measures don't reflect reality, educational needs

The Baltimore city school system is considering sweeping changes to its school funding formula, potentially directing more money into schools where many students come from high poverty families.

In a recent discussion about concentrated poverty and our public schools, a colleague mentioned that, “poverty was going down anyway,” in an attempt to de-emphasize the need for greater education funding. And he’s not wrong. Poverty in America has decreased some since the 2008 economic crash, dropping to 12.3 percent in 2017 from 13.2 percent a decade earlier.

But there are still millions of Americans — and thousands right here in Maryland — struggling under the weight and strain of economic disparity, many of them children. And official definitions of poverty often don’t reflect the reality of day to day life.


In 2016, for example, the federal government defined a family of four with two children as poor if their income was under $24,339. Think about that: How different would your life look if all your clothing, meals, housing, electricity, entertainment, etc. had to be covered by $24,339 a year.

Meanwhile, a study from the United Way, called ALICE (an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) showed a family of four in Maryland actually needs at least $69,672 a year in order to afford a modest living, taking into account the cost of housing, child care, technology and taxes, among other basic requirements.


In 2016, 10 percent of Marylanders lived in poverty by the federal definition, but 38 percent lived at or below the ALICE threshold.

And while the federal poverty definition showed roughly 12 percent of Maryland children living in poor households in 2016, the federal Free and Reduced Priced Meals (FARMS) count put the figure at closer to 55 percent for the 2016-2017 school year by its measure.

These data points begin to hint at the nuances of economic instability in America.

During my service on the Maryland Commission on Excellence and Innovation in Education (known as the Kirwan Commission), we compared student dropout rates in Maryland with the amount of time students spent in poverty, and overall poverty rates (based on FARMS data) in an effort to identify the effects of concentrated poverty on our school systems.

We found that the frequency of time students spent in poverty was a significant factor in whether they graduated, along with the amount of poverty surrounding them. In fact, when a total school poverty rate reached 50 percent, even those who had never experienced poverty become more likely to drop out — a correlation that increases dramatically as schools approach 100 percent poverty levels.

My colleague’s comment took none of this into account. It did not consider that poverty may be temporary or generational. And it did not acknowledge that poverty is on the move.

While my students on the West Side of Baltimore know a few things about long-term poverty — trauma, insecurity, and a distrust of authority are common, as is the lure of the streets, despite the best efforts of our schools, community leaders and our parents — the area with the greatest concentration of the economically challenged in Maryland isn’t in the city, but instead in rural Somerset County. And the area where poverty rates are increasing the most rapidly isn’t Baltimore either but the county surrounding it. In Maryland, economic instability can be found anywhere.

My colleague doesn’t know that poverty lies in wait, an equal opportunity destroyer, a quagmire, a psychic shackle, an ambush of fate. Too often the opportunities of the many can be decided by those who have the privilege of distance. Poverty may be declining, but it remains one of the most significant factors influencing educational and life outcomes.

Too many Americans teeter on the edge of economic hardship for us to ever treat this issue with anything but the greatest sensitivity, seriousness and urgency.

Morgan Showalter (morganshowalter@yahoo.com) is a special education teacher in the Baltimore City Public Schools and is the appointee of the Baltimore Teachers Union to the Maryland Commission on Excellence and Innovation in Education.

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