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Understanding the effects of poverty on education

Poverty and education

Photo: GettyImages

In my previous article, I discussed a phenomenon that is often overlooked by policymakers and pundits: how the experience of poverty produces its own psychology. Living in constant poverty, for example, is detrimental to both the decision-making process and to overall memory function.

Clinically, I often describe the experience of poverty as being similar to that of trauma, in that the experience of either produces significant psychological, physiological and neurological effects.

While many are fond of discounting poverty at the systemic level, perhaps the most unfortunate area where poverty has been overlooked is within education.

Amidst all of the buzzwords and soundbites that dominate popular and public discourse on education reform – the call for dismantling teachers’ unions, the drive to create charter schools, the fervor for standardized testing that accompanied the disastrous No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 – not many have been very interested in discussing the most powerful predictor of educational achievement: systemic poverty.

But as the research has consistently shown, the consequences of poverty for school-age children are both sobering and alarming.

For example, according to the American Psychological Association, children who live in poverty experience a lack of quality nutrition and access to quality foods, which has a direct and significant impact on neurodevelopment. Additionally, children in poverty also have a lack of adequate healthcare, above and beyond their most basic healthcare needs. They therefore tend to get sick more frequently, stay sick longer, and hence, miss more days of school.

Moreover, to simply make ends meet, parents living in poverty tend to have to work a greater amount of hours, and in many cases, more than one job. As a result, the parents of children in poverty cannot always be around to help continue the learning process at home, such as by helping with homework or processing the lessons of the day. These parents themselves also tend to be less educated than their more affluent peers, further complicating their ability to assist with the learning process.

Ironically, these parents are often vilified for “working so hard” and spending less time at home, in spite of a near-impossible choice.

Children in poverty experience a greater amount of pressure to enter the workforce at an earlier age in order to help their families alleviate financial stress. This is especially prevalent in Latino males, who face an equal pressure to assume the “man of the house” role at an early age.

Perhaps the most tragic – and ironic – result of the absence of poverty from the narrative on education reform is that the schools in the poorest communities tend to be the most underfunded, especially in the wake of the punitive measures outlined in the NCLB Act. These narratives have largely viewed poverty as a mere “excuse,” focusing instead on models of reform similar to those of big business.

We have done our children a disservice by maintaining these false narratives. The time for regurgitated platitudes is over. The time for getting serious about poverty is now.

About Adriana Villavicencio

Dr. Adriana Villavicencio is the youngest child of Ecuadorian immigrants. She has moved 29 times in her life, taking her on a journey from California to Bangalore, India, and New York City, where she recently earned a Ph.D. in Education Leadership and works as a Research Associate at New York University. An avid traveler, Adriana has collected experiences in four different continents and 16 different countries. But as a former high school English teacher, some of her fondest memories are those of her brilliant and brilliantly funny students in Brooklyn and Oakland. Adriana has contributed to several publications including the Daily News and, and is a managing editor for the Journal of Equity in Education. She earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in English Education at Columbia University, and currently serves on the board of Columbia’s Latino Alumni Association (LAACU). She enjoys scary movies with red vines, Sauvignon Blanc, and her Maltese dog, Napoleon.

To learn more about Adriana’s education consulting company, please visit

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.


  1. Beautiful

  2. So what’s the solution? More government involvement? Blame Republicans? Throwing more money at a problem? There have always been poor people but those that have the will have always overcome and bettered themselves – especially in education, and regardless of wealth, color or ethnic identity. There are multitudes of poor 3rd world nations where the children are better educated than American kids – American poor kids that have iPhones, know all the words to gangsta rap songs, have the latests $200 sneakers, and play video games. Stop blaming because the solution lies within.

  3. It doesn’t take much to educate. Generations of Americans did it with the barest of minimum, no computers or high technology, and with even greater odds to what the “poor” face today. But sadly many Latinos are not going to gain success with the entitlement mentality they have accquired. Poverty has nothing to do with it.

  4. Thank you Ed. Glad to see that Mario is still regurgitating the same garbage that has already been debunked by mountains of research.

  5. No Mario, many countries do not bother to educate the very poor or students with disabilities for that matter. And no, generations of Americans did not do it with barest of minimum. For many generations, only the wealthiest had access to schools above an elementary grade level. Moreover, it was illegal to teach an entire sector of society to read. Access has always been an issue.

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