The Problem With Poverty Statistics

After years of being swept under the rug, poverty is once again "above the fold." Journalists, politicians and academics are discussing the topic from every possible angle. A new study seems to come out every other week, not to mention the occasional bestselling book. Some have claimed that the War on Poverty has essentially been won -- setting off a skirmish over numbers, definitions, expectations and assumptions.

All of this discussion is infinitely better than the deafening silence we used to hear on the subject of poverty, but it can be hard to separate the signal from the noise. My organization, Communities In Schools, has worked for nearly 40 years at the intersection of poverty and education, so we try to stay on top of the trends -- a task that has become much more difficult lately.

Consider a few of the most recent twists and turns in the meta-narrative:

First, we're not even sure how to count poverty. The government's official measure is increasingly suspect because it doesn't adjust for safety-net programs, federal tax policies and regional variations in cost of living. Those items can make a big difference: Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks, a man with "unassailable liberal credentials," according to the New York Times, finds about 15 million Americans living in poverty when all the proper adjustments have been made -- not 45.3 million, according to the official government count.

But other experts say this methodology doesn't capture the true extent of economic hardship, because the experience of poverty is relative, rather than absolute. For that reason, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) counts as "poor" anyone with an income that's less than half the national median level. Using the 50 percent measure, the poverty line for a family of four in the U.S. would be $25,974 rather than $22,811, according to the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research, meaning that many more families would be counted as officially poor..

Secondly, no matter how you count poverty, any positive signs are inconsistent. According to a July study from the Pew Research Center, about 1.6 million U.S. children were lifted out of poverty between 2010 and 2013 -- very encouraging news, indeed. Whites, Hispanics and Asians all saw a decrease in poverty rates over that time period, but there was zero improvement for black children. In fact, for the first time since record-keeping began in 1974, it looks like there are more black children living in poverty than white children, even though the white population is three times larger. (Note that the difference is not yet statistically significant, so we'll need more time to assess this troubling trend.)

Next, we're no longer finding poverty where we most expect it. Despite the recent grim images from West Baltimore, our inner cities are becoming more affluent, as educated professionals opt for convenience and culture rather than acreage. According to a University of Virginia study that looked at the demographics of 66 American cities from 1990 to 2012, there are now more people living in poverty in the suburbs than in cities or in rural areas. That means teachers, superintendents and policymakers in the suburbs are now dealing with poverty-related problems they haven't seen before, and resource allocation is becoming more controversial in sprawling suburban districts.

Speaking of geography, it now appears that the relationship between location and social mobility is not just one of correlation, but rather causation. This finding comes from a groundbreaking study that compared the adult earnings of siblings who moved from one neighborhood to another when they were children. Researchers found that the earlier a child left a "bad" neighborhood -- poor schools, low community involvement, high levels of economic segregation and single-parent families -- the better they did as adults. And the reverse is also true: The more time a child spends growing up in a bad neighborhood, the less money he or she will make as an adult.

And finally, we're discovering that all poverty is not created equal. A recent study from Kathryn Edin of Johns Hopkins and Luke Schaefer of the University of Michigan finds that welfare reform and related tax credits are helping the working poor, with 3.2 million children lifted above the official poverty line in 2013. At the same time, however, the nonworking poor are doing much worse. According to the New York Times, Edin and Schaefer estimate there are now 3.4 million children living in families that subsist for a large part of the year on less than $2 per person, per day.

All of these numbers -- confusing and contradictory as they might seem -- are crucial to our understanding of poverty. I once heard someone say that "We only count what matters to us," so I'm heartened to see so many attempts at quantifying poverty. Even if the numbers don't always agree, it's good that we care enough to count.

As a natural optimist, I like to think that we're making headway on the poverty issue, but that does not mean we can pat ourselves on the back and unfurl the banner proclaiming "mission accomplished." In fact, I would argue that any progress thus far represents the proverbial low-hanging fruit and that further advances will require even deeper commitment and more creative thinking.

Take childhood poverty, for instance. Many studies show that social mobility is decreasing in the U.S., so a child living in poverty today will have less chance of climbing the social ladder than her parents did. It's this intractable, multi-generation poverty that won't be solved with food stamps or tax credits, and it breeds the kind of hopelessness and despair that can boil over into violence, as we've seen recently in Baltimore.

Education has always been this nation's best tool for breaking the cycle of poverty and making the American dream available to all children, regardless of birth. School is supposed to be the place where kids find a sense of hope and possibility, in addition to the knowledge and skills they need for a better future.

But what if that's no longer the case? What if our public schools perpetuate a sense of despair, rather than providing a sense of hope? I worry that's becoming the case, and it's very much a structural issue, rather than a school issue, per se.

Of all the recent statistics that I've seen on poverty, here's the one that's most troubling: According to the Southern Education Foundation, 51 percent of public school students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, the most common threshold that we use for determining economic need. In other words, a majority of students in our public schools today are functionally poor.

That's a terrifying reality, because our schools were never designed for a student population where poverty is the rule, rather than the exception. As I explained in a recent talk for TEDx , poverty has a major impact on the non-cognitive skills that are so crucial for success in school. As a result, when poor kids arrive at school, they are already compromised in terms of preconditions for learning, and they struggle to keep up with their more advantaged peers.

It's time to realize that our public schools have reached a tipping point. When a majority of students are poor, narrow academic reforms will never give them the kind of holistic support they need to break out of poverty and build a better future. To really help these kids, we have to re-envision our schools to meet all of their human development needs in a rational, efficient, integrated way.

The good news is we already know one way to accomplish that without blowing up existing structures. Simply by bringing social services into the school setting -- counseling, mentoring, healthcare, nutrition and more -- we can make sure every at-risk child is getting just the right help in just the right dosage. This approach is known as the community school model or wraparound services or integrated student supports. By whatever name, this model is already working for more than 1.5 million kids nationwide, and independent studies prove it can boost graduation rates, attendance and academic performance -- even among the most disadvantaged students.

With 40 million poor kids in America, we've only begun to scratch the surface in terms of delivering on the promise of this model. There are a number of reasons for this, but here's the big one: Our public schools and our social service sector were established as separate fiefdoms, with different mandates, different stakeholders and different funding streams. We have a massive bureaucracy for educating kids and a massive bureaucracy for fighting poverty, and both bureaucracies pursue their missions sincerely but separately.

That's simply never going to work. It's time to recognize that poverty and education are not two of the most pressing issues of our day -- they are two faces of the same issue. We can't improve our schools without addressing the barriers created by poverty, and we won't see any long-term improvement in the poverty rate until our schools are redesigned to better serve their poorest students.