Poverty and Education: A Two-Edged Sword
For many impoverished children around the world, poverty and education are inextricably linked. Education offers an avenue out of poverty, but poverty often presents obstinate barriers to obtaining an education. Below we unpack many of the effects of poverty on education:
It’s estimated 260 million children do not attend school.1 Many, if not all, of the reasons for this truancy stem from poverty. In 39 out of 99 countries, more than half of the poorest children have not completed primary school.2
Parents’ lack of education is a dominant predictor of whether one generation will pass cyclical poverty on to the next.3
There are 781 million illiterate adults, with illiteracy most prevalent in developing regions such as South Asia and Africa.4 If a parent can’t read, he or she can’t read warning labels or help children with their schoolwork. Uneducated themselves, parents may neglect to prioritize their children’s education. They may not recognize its importance, or they may simply be unable to afford it.
Education: Poverty may compel parents to keep children out of school for financial reasons.
Impoverished families frequently must choose between sending their children to school and providing basic necessities such as food. When families live below the poverty line, earning $1.90 a day or less, they struggle just to survive. Any extra expenses, however minimal and however they may improve their lives, are likely out of reach. Out of necessity, these families often focus on immediate needs, like food and shelter, rather than long-term goals such as breaking out of cyclical poverty through education.
Some impoverished children are kept from school because their parents are unable to afford the school supplies necessary to succeed. While others are kept from school because they have to go to work to help contribute to the family’s income. For many impoverished families, it’s the only way to obtain sufficient food and other necessities.5
There are 160 million children involved in child labor,6 a phenomenon closely linked to poverty and education.
Children in poverty who have no access to education, for whatever reason, are often pushed into the workforce.
An education could increase their earnings by 10 percent per additional year of schooling.7 But these children rarely complete their education, limiting their future job opportunities and chances for breaking out of poverty.8
How does poverty affect education? Even when children attend school, poverty may hinder their learning.
The stresses of poverty have “suppressing effects on individuals’ cognitive development, executive functioning, and attention” that contribute to continuing the cycle of poverty.9 The human brain has limited bandwidth, and the stresses of poverty and critical immediate needs can dominate one’s thoughts, leaving little to no brain power left to use elsewhere. According to one study, poverty “imposes a cognitive load and impedes cognitive capacity.”10
This is due, in part, to lack of proper nutrition, which is essential to the proper development of children’s rapidly developing brains. Improper nutrition at this critical stage can impair a child’s ability to learn even in the long term.11
Hunger also inhibits the learning process. If a child comes to school hungry, it’s difficult to concentrate and retain information. They may even fall asleep. Malnutrition also compromises one’s immune system, and frequent sickness may prevent school attendance. These factors severely disadvantage a child’s ability to learn.
A proper education can arm a child with the knowledge to improve their lives, but these obstacles must be overcome before the child can slice through the bonds of cyclical poverty. It’s estimated that “if all students in low-income countries gained even basic reading skills, 171 million people could escape poverty.”12
Thankfully, organizations like GFA World are addressing this disparity in poverty and education. In additional to literacy programs and other practical assistance, GFA World assists children, their families and communities in Asia and Africa through its child sponsorship program. This program helps provide proper nutrition and educational opportunities, which helps children defeat illiteracy and equip them with key life-skills training to succeed in the future.
GFA workers empower these children with the knowledge, values, and skills they need to achieve a brighter future and help build a better tomorrow for their families and their communities. When parents pass on a legacy of education and empowering ideas, rather than poverty, “the foundation of global poverty quivers, just one generation later.”13
1 “What is learning poverty?” The World Bank. https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/education/brief/what-is-learning-poverty. April 28, 2021.
2 “11 Unexpected Barriers to Education Around the World.” Concern Worldwide US. https://www.concernusa.org/story/barriers-to-education-around-the-world/. August 15, 2019.
3 Rodriguez, Leah. “Understanding How Poverty is the Main Barrier to Education.” Global Citizen. https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/poverty-education-satistics-facts/. February 6, 2020.
4 Giovetti, Olivia. “6 Benefits of Literacy in the Fight Against Poverty.” Concern Worldwide US. https://www.concernusa.org/story/benefits-of-literacy-against-poverty/. August 27, 2020.
5 “How Poverty Affects Education.” Compassion. https://www.compassion.com/poverty/poverty-and-education.htm. Accessed August 18, 2021.
6 “Child labour rises to 160 million – first increase in two decades.” International Labour Organization. https://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS_800090/lang–en/index.htm. June 10, 2021.
7 Rodriguez, Leah. “Understanding How Poverty is the Main Barrier to Education.” Global Citizen. https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/poverty-education-satistics-facts/. February 6, 2020.
8 GPE Secretariat. “Child Labor Hinders Children’s Education.” https://www.globalpartnership.org/blog/child-labor-hinders-childrens-education. June 12, 2016.
9 Sleek, Scott. “How Poverty Affects the Brain and Behavior.” https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/how-poverty-affects-the-brain-and-behavior. August 31, 2015.
10 Gilbert, Matthew B. “Breaking Down the Scarcity Mindset.” The Harvard Crimson. https://www.thecrimson.com/column/a-time-for-new-ideas/article/2020/5/1/gilbert-breaking-down-scarcity-mindset/. May 1, 2020.
11 Walthouse, Emily. “Effects of Hunger on Education.” The Borgen Project. https://borgenproject.org/effects-of-hunger-on-education/. Accessed August 19, 2021.
12 Giovetti, Olivia. “6 Benefits of Literacy in the Fight Against Poverty.” Concern Worldwide US. https://www.concernusa.org/story/benefits-of-literacy-against-poverty/. August 27, 2020.
13 Psarris, Emily. “Fighting Global Poverty with Ideas: Uprooting poverty requires education that transmits values.” GFA World. https://www.gfa.org/special-report/solutions-extreme-poverty-line-poor-impoverished/. October 14, 2020.