What You Need to Know: Poverty And Education In The South

Historical Underpinnings of Poverty in the South

The American South long has been the poor cousin to the northern states. And the legacy of slavery and racial inequality in the region has hampered African-American efforts to become full partners in sharing the benefits that accrue to being citizens of the largest single-nation economy in the world. Even with twentieth-century Supreme Court decisions that struck down discriminatory policies, African-Americans still suffered economically, socially and educationally. In 2012 full equality has not been achieved for African-Americans. Still, Southern poverty is not restricted to African-Americans. A 2010 study from the Southern Education Foundation shows that just 24% of Southern students attended school in districts in which extreme child poverty rates dipped below 5%; outside the South, that number climbs to 43% attending school in districts where extreme child poverty sits below the 5% threshold: A 2011 report from the U.S. Census lists the richest five states as being in the north; the poorest five were Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, West Virginia and Louisiana.

Poor Children in the South

As of 2009, just short of fifteen million American children were classified as poor. This represents an eighteen percent jump over the previous decade; a jump fuelled in large measure by the 2008 recession. The sagging economy portends danger for children in an increasing number of families, as poverty has been shown to adversely affect a child’s learning ability. The recession has been hardest on children from minority families; African-American children were two times as likely to have an unemployed parent as a child from a white family. The South is home to the most children living below 50% of the poverty line. The greatest ratio of poor children is in Mississippi, where thirty-one-percent are considered poor. Mississippi ranked last in child welfare, followed by Louisiana and Alabama.

Poverty Harshest Among Children in Minority Families

The Southern Education Foundation broadly defines the South as a region, including the following states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia. As of 2008, more than half of the public school students in the South were poor, and, in that year, the student body grew to reflect a majority of racial minority groups; groups that are  mostly African-American and Hispanic. Contributing to the change in racial makeup include the arrival in the South of Latino families and people from other national backgrounds, as well as African-Americans coming back to the South from other parts of the country. Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia all have a majority of pupils in public school who are both poor and of minority parentage. Poor minority students are more likely to fare worse on tests and have higher dropout numbers than white pupils. The trends, however, are not all negative. Low-income, minority fourth-graders in Georgia, Arkansas and Alabama have improved in reading, and eighth grade math students in those states have also advanced. The increased presence of minority students in the South has not translated into greater integration in classrooms; Caucasian children are more likely to attend schools where there are more white children, while African-American and Latino pupils tend to go to schools where there is a greater percentage of minority students. In general, Southern schools comprised of predominantly minority pupils are poor and have high numbers of students per single teacher.

Segregation and its Effect on Education Funding

1870s-1900s: In 1872 Southern States began to pay for public education. But education was not universally applied: the 1880 census showed 70% of African-Americans to be illiterate. In 1882, the so-called “Blair bill” was debated by Congress. The bill was designed to spread $135 million across the states over a decade to improve education. In 1886 only half of the South’s Senators voted for the bill; Congress finally killed the bill in 1890. The census taken that year showed four percent of white teenagers attending high schools; the number for African-Americans was below one half of one percent.

Nevertheless, by 1891, African-American illiteracy in the South decreased to 58%, for Caucasians the number was 31%. The 1896 “Plessy v. Ferguson” U.S. Supreme Court decision made segregation the law of the land, clearing the way for “Jim Crow” regulations which entrenched separate and unequal access to all services, including education. In 1899 the Supreme Court allowed the school board in Richmond County, Georgia to shutter the state’s only African-American high school for the purpose of spending more money on the area’s white school. In 1909 white school teachers in the South made double the salary that African-American teachers did. At that time in Alabama, white teachers made $50.92 per month; African-American teachers made $25.23 a month.

1910s-1939: In 1911 North Carolina’s Supreme Court rejected Camden County’s school bond issuance because they were distributed for building a white-only school. The state nevertheless persisted in using more than twice the educational resources on white students over African-American students.

By 1914 Southern states spent only thirty-eight percent of its educational dollar on African-American students. The ratio was $10.82 per white student to $4.01 for each African-American student; the most uneven spending was in Louisiana with state expenditures coming in at $16.44 per white student and $1.81 for each African-American pupil. Income disparities between African-American and white school teachers in the South were stark: in 1924 African-American teachers made a quarter the salary of their white counterparts.

Between 1913 and 1931 some educational cash began to flow for the construction of African-American schools: $4.3 million came from the Julius Rosenwald fund, $4.7 million from African-Americans, $1.2 million from whites and $17.4 million from Southern state legislatures combined to build 5,295 African-American schools. Southern education budgets based on race remained extreme in the 1930s; South Carolina was the most unequal, spending less than a dime per African-American student to every dollar invested in the education of white pupils. A 1939 study in Mississippi reported that the state spent nineteen cents on educating African-American students for every dollar spent on white children; many counties in the state allocated no money for African-American schools.

1950s-2000: In 1954 the landmark Supreme Court ruling, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, overturned the 1896. Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision, which enshrined segregation; strong Southern resistance to integration and equal distribution of educational resources continued. In 1958 Congress voted for the National Defense Education Act – the first major national education investment in eight decades; much of the cash was allocated to poor Southern schools. 1965 saw the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act; the law released two billion dollars that same year to aid students in poverty. In 1966 the federal Head Start pre-school program was launched in the South to help poor students. A 1973 Supreme Court decision found financial disparities in Texas’ school system were not in violation of federal law and that the constitution did not guarantee public education. That ruling pushed most fiscal education cases into courts in individual states. From 1981 to 1986, federal education cash declined twenty-one-percent under President Reagan. In 2000 the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the Nation’s Report Card released a report saying that the divide between poor and more affluent pupils remained static or widened since the early part of the 1990s, when students first took the tests.

Legal Battles over Education Funding Since 2000:

As the preceding discussion indicates, the inequalities in school funding have deep historical roots. The court cases listed above did not solve the issue. Most of the Southern states, with the exception of Mississippi, have engaged in litigation over school funding. The map below indicates which states in which such cases have seen court action; you can find details on the court battles in each individual state here.

Effects of Poverty on Children:

Poverty is not simply a case of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’ The ramifications of poverty for school children are far-reaching. A 2008 study comparing the effects of poverty on the brain functions of some nine and ten year-olds to those of children from financially secure families found that the damage to the group of poor children’s brains is close to that of having had a stroke. One researcher likened the condition to stroke victims who suffer from damage to their pre-frontal cortexes. Associated with children from poor families is malnutrition, illiteracy and stressful environments; such disadvantages greatly hinder a child’s ability to learn.  Childhood poverty is glaring when held up against important educational markers. For example, the transition from third to fourth grade is considered the time when students are expected to jump from “learning to read to reading to learn.” Recent statistics reveal that two-thirds of fourth grade students lag behind in reading skills, while eighty percent of students from poor families are not up to grade level in reading. The effects of poverty tend to linger into adulthood. Researchers in Chicago discovered that childhood poverty often translates into under-employment, low wages and associated health risks. The list of studies conducted on the relationship between poverty and ability to learn is a long one, with the fifty-year period between 1960 and 2010 opening discussion and generating data on the subject.

Despite the high hurdles poor children face, there is no evidence that says they are unable to learn. But there is a growing awareness that educators need to help mitigate the consequences of poverty, and steps have been taken in some districts. For example, in Newark New Jersey, the district has prepared an expanded curriculum for early childhood development, expanded school hours and focused more tightly on literacy. Full details are available here.

Can Education Solve Poverty, or must Poverty be Eliminated before Children can be Educated?

The answer may not be an ‘either/or’ reply. Unequal distribution of resources is a timeless problem. Solutions aimed at the elimination of poverty have defied even the best (and worst) thinkers in history. Taking the pragmatic approach of poverty mitigation, education writer Richard Rothstein advocates policies of ensuring proper health and housing exists for every school aged child, as well as enacting effective early education and afterschool programs. The flip side of the mitigation of poverty argument entails highlighting education as a means to ending poverty. Still, even some who tout education’s ability to end poverty see any solution as multi-faceted. Former Chancellor of Schools in Washington D.C., Michelle Rhee, believes “we can solve the problems of urban education in our lifetimes and actualize education’s power to reverse generational poverty.” Rhee acknowledges that this process is not up to educators alone, asserting that social and political will are the twin engines that will drive the education-out-of poverty train. But some are unequivocal: Microsoft founder, Bill Gates says “improving education is the best way to solve poverty and others, such as author John Marsh, say that the way out of poverty is through instituting stronger labor unions and taxing those with the most money.  With well-thought out opinions by respected commentators on both sides of the issue, the Southern Education Desk sees this as an opportunity to continue the conversation, and invites readers to offer their insights.


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  1. Pingback:Students taught: It's unfair to be white - Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Conservatives, Liberals, Third Parties, Left-Wing, Right-Wing, Congress, President - Page 30 - City-Data Forum

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