The chicken or the egg?

Is educational inequality a cause of poverty, or is poverty a cause of educational inequality?  As many people as might say the inequality came first, others would say poverty came first. Which came first, the chicken or the egg?


Educational inequality is the unequal distribution of resources to schools, and academic institutions which include but are not limited to facilities, teachers, services, textbooks, and technology to socially marginalized communities.

After segregation in the 1960s, improvements to the highway system created a so-called white flight which had many families living in cities across America move out into the suburbs. Houses in the suburbs are on average worth more than houses in the city. More money is generated from these houses creating more money for the school districts. Because there is more money coming in from the houses, the schools can spend more on higher salaries for the teachers, new and up to date technology, books, smaller class sizes, and newer classroom resources.

The public education system is funded by Federal, state, and local governments with the local and state governments providing much of the money. Public education also is supported by property tax revenues and school districts can levy extra taxes.  So if the economy is weak, and industries move out of the cities, there isn’t as much tax revenue, then the schools suffer. The ripple gets wider and wider in the water.

The gaps in educational opportunity for kids are inextricably linked to shortfalls in economic opportunity for adults. Today about three-fourths of both African American and Hispanic students attend schools where a majority of their classmates qualify as poor or low-income (Reardon, Waldfogel, & Bassok, 2016)

Young people who do not complete primary schooling are less likely to obtain jobs good enough to avoid poverty.

In 2013, 51% of US children were eligible for free and reduced lunch, up from 38% in 2000. (NY Times, 2015)

The gap in cognitive, physical, and social development between children in poverty and middle-class children is set by age 3.

Illiteracy is one of the strongest predictors of poverty.

Illiterate people earn 30% – 42% less than their literate counterparts and do not have the literacy skills required to undertake further vocational education or training to improve their earning capacity.

Without strategies (from affordable housing initiatives to school assignment policies) that also combat the economic isolation of so many African American and Hispanic students, the U.S. is unlikely to ever entirely close the racial and income gap in its educational performance. In an information-based global economy—where jobs and opportunity flow to the nations nurturing innovation and skills—all Americans would pay a mounting price for that failure (Reardon, Waldfogel, & Bassok, 2016).

Is educational inequality a cause of poverty, or is poverty caused by educational inequality?  The best response is, it depends. Generational poverty affects families over many generations. Situational poverty can be temporary and affects families where a situation (illness, job loss eg.) has caused the hardship. To some families it can be the educational inequality, and others it is poverty.What matters most is not how they got there, but how they get out.

If we took a dual approach to a solution and those who are experts in working against poverty do that while those who are experts in educational inequality work on that. If nothing else, we meet in the middle. The ripple effect of this would also get wider and wider in the water, and everyone would benefit.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

These are my reflections for today.



Author: Meg White

I am a lifelong educator and I hope to use this blog to reflect on what's happening in public education. These are my musings, opinions, and reflections. If you learn from them, good for us. Ignorance is no excuse. I have co-authored a book, "Questioning Assumptions and Challenging Perceptions: Becoming an Effective Teacher in Urban Environments" (available on amazon)

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