Statistics on Poverty and Education


1. Correlation between poverty and lack of education in the U.S.
2. Correlation between poverty and lack of education elsewhere

1. Correlation between poverty and lack of education in the U.S.

Here’s a graph showing the correlation between poverty and lack of education in the 50 states of the U.S.:

poverty and education

Poor people apparently have lower college completion rates, which confirms prior intuition: poor families may not be able to pay the cost of education, or other burdens of poverty such as bad health may make it difficult to complete college.

It’s a vicious circle: poverty makes it harder to get an education, and lack of a good education makes it more likely that you are poor. Unsurprisingly, average income is substantially different for people of different education levels, with high average incomes practically a prerogative for the better educated:

Education and income

earnings and education

probability of being in an educational group for a given level of income


It’s almost a trivial observation, but the circle is really vicious: poor families often can’t offer a good education to their children, who then grow up to be poor, and who then have poor children, etc.

Simple comparisons between children in poor families and children in non-poor families using national datasets indicate that poor children are more likely to do worse on indices of school achievement than non-poor children are. Poor children are twice as likely as non-poor children to have repeated a grade, to have been expelled or suspended from school, or to have dropped out of high school. They are also 1.4 times as likely to be identified as having a learning disability in elementary or high school than their non-poor counterparts. (source)

A study called “The Impact of Family Income on Child Achievement” (by Gordon Dahl and Lance Lochner) measured the consequences of growing up poor for a child’s math and reading achievement: a $1,000 increase in parental income raises math test scores by 2.1 percent and reading test scores by 3.6 percent (source).

poverty and absenteeism


Some more data for the U.S. (via Peter Orszag):

education and poverty

education and poverty

Although more and more children from poor families complete college, the gap with better off children is becoming larger:

college completion by income quartile


A more detailed version:

poverty and education


Yet another version:


The same is true for test scores: the gap in test scores between rich and poor American children is roughly 30-40% wider than it was 25 years ago (source).




Poverty reduces education outcomes, and lower education levels exacerbate poverty later in life.

And there is more going on than differences in intelligence. Poor children don’t underachieve because they are less intelligent. Here’s some evidence indicating that students from high-income backgrounds but with low test scores are more likely to obtain a college education than students from low-income backgrounds with high test scores:

test scores college completion and income


The probability that a top-scoring low-income student completes college is about the same as the probability that a low-scoring high-income student does. Hence, other things going on in children’s social environment must explain differences in college completion rates. Perhaps wealthy parents are better at motivating their children, and perhaps the stress of poverty forces poor children out of school.

Here’s another example of the correlation between income and education:

asian immigrants and education levels

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2. Correlation between poverty and lack of education elsewhere

The same is true on country level: poor countries can afford less education than richer countries, and this in turn makes it harder to become a wealthy country.

There’s really no need to say that the poor receive less education and lesser quality education than the rich, and that this puts a heavy burden on the prospects and opportunities of poor children, but the figures below show the extent of the problem:

years of education for richest and poorest


grade attainment rates for rich and poor children


school enrollment by parental income group


poverty less common among africans with secondary education


Here are some data for the U.K.:

poverty and education in the UK


One measure of poverty is income inequality, and it appears that there’s a correlation between low education scores and high levels of inequality:


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  5. Teacher says

    This was an interesting article, thank-you. I have been doing quite a bit of reading regarding poverty and at-risk youth for a class. I hadn’t seen the statistics regarding the incidence of high-achieving poor students attending college at the same rate as low-achieving wealthy students. However, I’m not sure that this statistic can be merely be explained by low-income parents failing to motivate their children as well as wealthy parents. I believe that many parents would want their child to achieve and to attend college.
    Perhaps there are a vareity of other factors that contribute to high-achieving students failure to attend college. The cost of higher education may still be too prohibitive to these individuals. Or perhaps they are unable to attend college due to financial responsibilies to take care of their family or to care for other family members within the home. Additionally, they may not have the available resources to attend college (car, computer, etc) I believe that it would be too negative and simplistic of a view to say that parents of wealthy children are better motivators.

  6. Middle School Teacher says

    Mr. Spagnoli,
    I, like the teacher above, am also a teacher, and I am taking a class entitled ‘In the Face of Poverty.’ I’ve read two books by the authors, Eric Jensen and Ruby Payne. These authors seem to be leading experts in this area of children living in poverty and the ramifications for the educational system. Are you familiar with either of them?
    Ruby Payne goes into extensive depth regarding the different classes of people and the accompanying characteristics/mindset, to put it very simply. I would agree from Payne’s standpoint that the assumption of wealthier parents being better motivators isn’t the case when trying to explain away the percentages of high-achievers in low income families versus low-achievers in high income families attending college. The teacher’s blog post is right on with the reading/research that I’ve been doing this summer also.
    On a positive note regarding education for children living in poverty, Eric Jensen gives extensive research as to the brain’s wiring and how we can work to change the brain’s wiring or the ‘retooling of the operating system.’ He gives not only the research and statistics to back all of this up, but also gives steps to achieving this success factor for our schools and individual teachers/classrooms. I appreciate you creating this awareness through your site, but would love for you to also include the positive educational statistics that are making a difference for children living in poverty within our country.
    Thank you.

  7. Middle School Teacher says

    In regards to the neurological and psychological explanations of poverty, please look into Eric Jensen. I think his ‘brain research’ statistics would fit perfectly with your blog’s focus. The book I would recommend, Teaching with Poverty in Mind, covers these types of statistics well in the first three chapters. Happy reading!

  8. Aleta Makomeke says

    I am a teacher who operates in a poverty infested community…I am impressed with the book title ”Teaching with Poverty in Mind.”Where can i get it?

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