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Income Inequality Can Negatively Impact Academics—Here's What Parents Can Do

Kids in their classroom

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Key Takeaways

  • Federal programs aimed at improving schools have turned out largely ineffective.
  • A new study shows that income inequality may an important culprit in low academic achievement.
  • Addressing issues of income inequality may be more important than trying to reform schools when it comes to improving academics.

There are many efforts currently in place to boost academic achievement. These programs, such as the No Child Left Behind Act, attempt to fix how schools operate by reforming instruction and retraining teachers. However, they have been largely ineffective.

Academic achievement is key to happy and healthier futures for children. Finding a way to make sure all students have the tools they need to succeed is paramount to their self-esteem and their ability to achieving their dreams and career goals. It also makes them more likely to be physically and emotionally healthy as adults.

A new study, published October 2021 in the journal Educational Review, finds that closing income gaps may be the key to improving academic performance nationwide. Data suggests that areas with greater income inequality see lower test scores in both math and reading. While poorer students' reading skills suffered in areas with large income gaps, both poor and non-poor students' math skills were negatively impacted.

This data indicates that the best way to improve overall academic performance is to work towards closing income gaps and breaking down barriers that low income families commonly face.

A Closer Look at the Study

Study author Joseph Workman analyzed American 4th graders' math and reading scores over a 27-year time span, using data from the National Assessment of Educational Process (NAEP).

According to Workman's analysis, reading test scores were lower among poor students living in states with notable income equality, like Louisiana and New York. In these areas, low-income students performed poorly while their higher-income peers scored well.

Math scores were lower in states with high-income inequality as well. However, both low-income and middle- to high-income students performed poorly in math within these areas. It is unclear why the higher-income students benefited in reading but not in math.

Workman also found that scores were lowest in states that had the greatest leaps in income inequality over time, meaning that the income inequality got progressively worse.

The study was not able to establish a causal relationship between income inequality and student achievement. "I addressed this concern as best I could by using a quasi-experimental fixed effects design that helps adjust for unobserved factors in the association between income inequality and achievement (i.e. the idea that correlation isn’t causation)," notes Workman. "However, we cannot be completely confident there is a causal relationship between two variables without a true experimental design."

Workman also points out the patterns he discovered cannot necessarily be applied outside of the United States.

What Is Income Inequality?

Income inequality refers to a gap between the wealthy and the poor within an area. When this gap is considerable, children experience its negative effects, especially children from poor families. "For children, income inequality has been linked with higher rates of child abuse, low birth rates, and parental divorce," notes Workman.

Income inequality happens when some groups experience large income gains while others are left behind. Issues of social inequality, like racism, also play a role in preventing some groups from accessing these gains.

We see income inequality most often in urban areas, as they grow and develop. Globalization and technological advances have most recently been behind major income jumps in some groups, while those in other fields have not seen comparable gains or a rise in minimal wage.

Joseph Workman, study author

For children, income inequality has been linked with higher rates of child abuse, low birth rates, and parental divorce.

— Joseph Workman, study author

The common myth that low academic achievement among low-income children is related to their parents' lack of education and time to spend their kids has been debunked. A report by the Economic Policy Institute found that when parents from low-income families substantially increased their involvement, scores remained low. Workman's study confirms income plays a more structural role in inhibiting academic achievement, rather than having a direct effect on how well people parent.

Bridging the Income Gap

Workman's study indicates that academic achievement may be best boosted by addressing the deeper-level problem of income inequality. This may be best achieved through a variety of programs and policies.

Company Benefits

Work benefits, such as federally matched retirement or programs that provide access to homeownership, may help working-class families reach a higher standard of living. Company benefits can go a long way towards improving families' socioeconomic status, even if incomes don't jump up significantly. For example, when health care and retirement are included, families can save more money or have more money available to spend. This can help families be more prepared to support children over the long term.

Educational Policies

Preschool and infant care programs may cost as much as or more than a working parent's paycheck, making it hard to save money or provide for children during their first five years. Preschool is not affordable for many families, yet it is strongly recommended and has been shown to increase children's future academic success. "In the United States, much of the income gap in academic achievement is present before students begin formal schooling at age 6 and the gap continues to grow during non-school periods like summer breaks," says Workman.

Policies supporting universal early education or early education free for low-income families may also support social mobility and help close the income gap and thereby the achievement gap. If these programs receive adequate funding, they can offer quality care and education to help give kids the right start to support their future success.

Working to close the income gap will not happen overnight. In the meantime, it's important for schools and families to help maximize their current students' potential. Dr. Russell emphasizes the need to read aloud to children from birth through their middle school years as well as the need for active, hands-on teaching in schools. "I recommend adherence to curriculum that favors active student experiences over 'sit and get,'" he explains. For example, learning about physics may be better achieved by students building their own rockets that simply completing equations to see how far a rocket will shoot.

Government Programs

Government programs and policies are instrumental in closing the income gap. For example, policies such as a higher minimum wage or a lower threshold for families to collect the earned income tax credit may aid in giving all families access to social mobility. In the case of technology and globalization, income inequality is inevitable if those groups who do not benefit from these gains are not offered a higher wage or other options to increase their incomes.

If some families' incomes become relatively too low, they may fall into poverty. Poverty creates a cycle that is difficult to break. Universal access to adequate nutrition is key in helping families in poverty sustain themselves and improve their financial situations. Hunger will naturally distract from all other lesser needs and a poor diet may leave both parents and children unprepared to function at their highest capacity, explains William Russell Ed.D, a career educator and principal in Title I schools. Programs like the Woman Infants and Children Program (WIC) aim to combat this.

What This Means For You

All children deserve to attend school with an equal chance to succeed. Closing the income inequality gap will not happen overnight, but policies such as universal pre-K and higher minimum wage may help. While that work is being done, it is important to continue to set students up for success by reading with younger kids, exploring learning in organic ways, and taking a hands-on approach to education. While these measures can help, real change comes at a community level, so it is important to advocate for policies that support students, and ensure equal education for all.


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