Poverty and high school dropouts

The impact of family and community poverty on high school dropouts.

By Russell W. Rumberger, PhD

The impact of family and community poverty on high school dropouts. The United States is facing a dropout crisis, with an estimated 1.1 million members of the 2012 high school graduating class not earning diplomas (Education Week, 2012). Dropouts face extremely bleak economic and social prospects. Compared to high school graduates, they are less likely find a job and earn a living wage, and more likely to be poor and to suffer from a variety of adverse health outcomes (Rumberger, 2011). Moreover, they are more likely to rely on public assistance, engage in crime and generate other social costs borne by taxpayers (Belfield & Levin, 2007).

Poverty and dropouts are inextricably connected in the three primary settings affecting healthy child and adolescent development: families, schools and communities.

In 2009, poor (bottom 20 percent of all family incomes) students were five times more likely to drop out of high school than high-income (top 20 percent of all family incomes) students (Chapman, Laird, Ifill, & KewalRamani, 2011, Table 1). Child poverty is rampant in the U.S., with more than 20 percent of school-age children living in poor families (Snyder & Dillow, 2012, Table 27). And poverty rates for Black and Hispanic families are three times the rates for White families.

Family Poverty

Family poverty is associated with a number of adverse conditions — high mobility and homelessness; hunger and food insecurity; parents who are in jail or absent; domestic violence; drug abuse and other problems — known as “toxic stressors” because they are severe, sustained and not buffered by supportive relationships (Shonkoff & Garner, 2012). Drawing on a diverse fields of medical, biological and social science, Shonkoff and Garner present an ecobiodevelopmental framework to show how toxic stress in early childhood leads to lasting impacts on learning (linguistic, cognitive and social-emotional skills), behavior and health. These impacts are likely manifested in some of the precursors to dropping out, including low achievement, chronic absenteeism and misbehavior, as well as a host of strategies, attitudes and behaviors — sometimes referred to as “noncogntive” skills — linked to school success (Farrington et al., 2012)

While family poverty is clearly related to dropping out, poverty associated with schools and communities also contributes to the dropout crisis. It is also well documented that schools in the United States are highly segregated by income, social class and race/ethnicity. In 2009-2010, 9 percent of all secondary students attended high-poverty schools (where 75 percent or more of the students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch), but 21 percent of Blacks and Hispanics attended high-poverty schools, compared to 2 percent of Whites and 7 percent of Asians (Aud et al., 2012, Figure 13-2). More than 40 years ago, famed sociologist James Coleman demonstrated that a students’ achievement is more highly related to the characteristics of other students in the school than any other school characteristic (Coleman et al., 1966). Subsequent research has confirmed this finding and even found that the racial/ethnic and social class composition of schools was more important than a student’s own race, ethnicity and social class in explaining educational outcomes (Borman & Dowling, 2010). 

Community Poverty

Community poverty also matters. Some neighborhoods, particularly those with high concentrations of African-Americans, are communities of concentrated disadvantage with extremely high levels of joblessness, family instability, poor health, substance abuse, poverty, welfare dependency and crime (Sampson, Morenoff, & Gannon-Rowley, 2002). Disadvantaged communities influence child and adolescent development through the lack of resources (playgrounds and parks, after-school programs) or negative peer influences (Leventhal & Brooks-Gunn, 2000). For instance, students living in poor communities are more likely to have dropouts as friends, which increases the likelihood of dropping out of school.

The adverse effects of poverty on school dropout can be mitigated through two primary strategies. One is to improve the academic achievement, attitudes and behaviors of poor and other students at risk for dropping out through targeted intervention programs. The U.S Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse maintains a list of proven programs; it also issued a Dropout Prevention Practice Guide in 2009 with a set of research-based practices (Dynarski et al., 2008). This approach is limited to the extent that students continue to be exposed to the adverse settings of poor families, poor schools and poor communities.

The second strategy is to improve the settings themselves. Effectively, that would mean reducing the poverty level of families, schools and communities and the adverse conditions within them. This would require considerable, political will, and public support to reduce the huge disparities in family income, access to health care, school funding and student composition, and community resources.

A 2005 United Nations report found that the U.S. had the highest rate of child poverty among all 24 Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD) countries exceeded only by Mexico (UNICEF, 2005). The report further found that variation in government policy — particularly the extent to which the government provides social transfer programs for low-income families — explains most of the variation in poverty rates among countries. A recent follow-up report examined five dimensions of child well-being — material well-being, health and safety, education, behaviors and risks and housing and environment — in 29 developed countries, and the U.S. ranked 26th (UNICEF, 2013). Maybe it is not a coincidence that the U.S. also ranks 22nd in the world in high school graduation rates (OECD, 2112, Chart A2.1). If the U.S. ever hopes to achieve President Obama’s stated goal of becoming first in the world in college completion rates, then it is imperative that we greatly increase rates of high school graduation and child well-being.

Author Bio

Russell Rumberger Russell Rumberger is professor of education in the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at UC Santa Barbara and former vice provost for Education Partnerships, University of California Office of the President. A faculty member at UCSB since 1987, Professor Rumberger has published widely in several areas of education: education and work; the schooling of disadvantaged students, particularly school dropouts and linguistic minority students; school effectiveness and education policy. He recently completed a book, Dropping Out: Why Students Drop Out of High School and What Can Be Done About It, published by Harvard University Press in the fall of 2011. He currently directs the California Dropout Research Project, which is producing a series of reports and policy briefs about the dropout problem in California and a state policy agenda to improve California’s high school graduation rate. Professor Rumberger received a PhD in education and a MA in economics from Stanford University and a BS in electrical engineering from Carnegie-Mellon University.  


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