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Aaron Pallas

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Poverty and Education: Reflections on the AERA Conference Theme

I confess some ambivalence about a definition of poverty which encompasses the moral, intellectual, and material domains. Not because each of these domains is unimportant; rather, my concern is that defining poverty this broadly runs the risk of obscuring the ways in which they are intertwined. Impoverished material circumstances may heighten the risk of an impoverished moral or intellectual education, as when a child with the misfortune of being born into poverty is channeled into a school with a truncated conception of learning that privileges learning to excel on standardized tests over a deeper understanding of the world and how we might conduct ourselves in it. Conversely, an education lacking a strong moral sense of how individuals should behave towards one another in a democracy probably increases the risk of designing and implementing education policies which perpetuate the strikingly unequal distribution of resources and opportunity in American society.

A fundamental issue in thinking about poverty and education is whether to think of poverty in relation to an absolute threshold separating the impoverished from the more advantaged, or in relation to a relative standard that separates the poor from the non-poor, or both. Although we can describe the resources that are necessary to ensure an adequate standard of living which yields an opportunity for a rewarding life—there probably are minimum standards for basic goods such as food, clothing, and shelter—we get into trouble when we translate these into concrete and measurable criteria defining who is in poverty and who is not.

The history of the federal poverty index is instructive on this point. The development of the poverty threshold was stimulated by statistician Mollie Orshansky’s discomfort in the early 1960’s with the fact that existing indices did not take account of family size: an elderly couple with an annual income of $2,900 would be defined as poor whereas a two-parent family with four children and an annual income of $3,100 would not. Orshansky’s efforts to link the poverty classification to the minimum cost of a nutritionally-adequate food plan, and the federal government’s subsequent tethering of the poverty threshold to the Consumer Price Index, have been useful for administrative purposes; but the numbers tell us little about what it means to experience poverty, or how poverty might pose challenges to the fulfillment of human potential.

In some respects, the challenges in defining the meaning of poverty resemble the evolution of school finance litigation. In the early years of efforts to address the fact that state funding for urban school districts with large concentrations of poor children fell far short of the expenditures in wealthier districts, the focus was on equity—efforts to create parity in funding levels for richer and poorer districts. Parity could be achieved by lowering the spending of wealthier districts, but there was no political appetite for that. And increasing the spending of poorer districts with large numbers of students was viewed as too expensive for most states to embrace. Equity in school finance, defined as equal per-pupil allocations regardless of district wealth, has never been achieved on a widespread basis.

The logic of the challenge shifted, however, in part because no state defined equity in educational spending as a basic right; but many state constitutions made reference to the existence of schooling systems which were “ample,” “basic,” “general,” “thorough” or “efficient.” This led to a reframing of school finance reform away from equity and towards adequacy, defined as the provision of the resources necessary to assure an opportunity for an adequate education for all. Adequacy challenges to school finance inequality have generally held favor in the courts, though they raise difficult questions about what constitutes an adequate education and what resources must be in place to secure it.

Adequacy is an absolute, not relative, criterion. But these notions are embedded in a capitalist economy in which competition reigns, and adequacy in particular obscures the idea that economic, social, and educational inequalities are relational, produced through social interactions in which the unequal control of resources among actors, or groups of actors, perpetuates advantage and disadvantage. Social and educational research has been quite successful in describing the associations between poverty and education, and even the mechanisms which perpetuate those associations. But the normative project of transforming these mechanisms has largely been unrealized. I am looking forward to the focused attention of scholars from around the world on this theme in San Francisco.

About the author

Aaron Pallas is Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a Fellow of AERA and an elected member of the Sociological Research Association. His most recent projects are explicitly designed to inform policymakers and other stakeholders about conditions in New York City public schools.

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