The national childhood poverty rate reached record lows just before the pandemic. The share of children living below the federal poverty line dropped from 22% to 14% over the previous decade, with Black and Hispanic children benefiting most from the decline.
The economic downturn in 2020 reversed that trend — and the overturning of abortion rights could exacerbate it, some experts say, by forcing more people to follow through with pregnancies that they are not financially prepared for.
Childhood poverty is linked to a wide range of challenges, from poor health and cognitive development to higher rates of mental illness and involvement in the juvenile justice system. It also impacts schooling, with impoverished children experiencing lower academic achievement and higher drop-out rates than other students.
Test scores already dropped significantly as students shifted to remote schooling during the pandemic, a learning loss that particularly affected Black and Hispanic students. An uptick in child poverty rates could further the racial inequalities that are already rampant in education, said Christopher Nellum, executive director of the Education Trust-West, a nonprofit advocacy for students of color.
“There will potentially be more [poor] kids in schools now, given that decision,” Nellum said. “It means we either have a chance to support student’s growth and learning — or we have more opportunities to deny Black students access to what they need and deserve in schools. History tells us that we are probably going to do more of the latter, unfortunately.”
More than 1 in 4 Black children in the U.S. is living in poverty, one of the highest rates of any racial group. That rate has declined from nearly half in the early 1980s, largely thanks to government policies like the expansion of food stamps.
But Black children are still overrepresented among the 10.5 million American youth in poverty. There are just as many impoverished Black children as there are white children — even though there are three times as many white children in the U.S.
As a result, Nellum points out, “the vast majority of Black students enter schools that are concentrated with high proportions of other students who experience poverty. … So individual students are coming from families that are experiencing poverty, and then they enter schools, with more students who experience poverty.”
Living in a low-income community can affect every aspect of a student’s time in school. Because public schools are funded in part by local property taxes, those in high poverty areas often have less to spend on teacher salaries and educational resources. Low pay and benefits could mean schools struggle to retain qualified educators, and cash-strapped districts can suffer from outdated and tattered textbooks and supplies, as well as subpar school lunches.
“It could also mean that these students are encountering a lower-quality curriculum that hasn’t been designed to be aligned with standards in a particular state or with different ways of learning,” Nellum said. “There are innovative teaching practices that can reach students where they are — and that could not be present in a school that is serving low-income Black students, for example.”
While the racial achievement gap has been gradually decreasing over the past several decades, it’s still stark. In one assessment by Stanford University, the difference in average standardized test scores between Black and white students in 2019 accounts for almost two years of schooling.
The Stanford assessment emphasized that the reasons for that gap extended beyond school walls.
“A child’s early experiences — at home, in child care and preschool, in their neighborhoods, and with their peers — provide opportunities to develop socioemotional and academic capacities,” the researchers noted. “Gaps in average test scores, therefore, represent gaps in educational opportunity.”
Black Americans at risk
The U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade — the 1973 case that established federal abortion rights — immediately made the procedure illegal in at least 13 states with trigger bans. Many are in the South, where the majority of Black Americans live.
Mississippi, which has one of the largest Black populations in the country, shut down its last abortion clinic following the court’s decision.
While some states continue to allow abortions, those seeking the procedure could now face more out-of-pocket costs. The price for an abortion is rising, and in states with bans, people will have additional travel costs to get the procedure elsewhere.
This is a particular problem for Black Americans and other racial groups that don’t have access to as much wealth as their white peers.
“For Black families who have suffered from multigenerational racism and discrimination, they have not been able to accumulate the same sort of wealth and disposable income,” said Janelle Scott, an education and African American studies professor at the University of California at Berkeley. “Their options are just by definition much more limited.”
Teen births could create another disproportionate effect on Black Americans because of the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling — affecting not only the education of the child but also the mother.
The birth rate for non-Hispanic Black teens — 25.8 per every 1,000 — is more than two times the rate for non-Hispanic white teens, according to a 2019 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I think we’re going to start to see increases in teen birth rates, which certainly will contribute to child poverty,” Scott said. “Younger and younger people will get pregnant, and have children, without the means to support them and their ability to complete their schooling in terms of their long-term job and financial well-being.”
Schools and national leaders should prepare now for the anticipated increase in child poverty, experts say. They can provide low-income school districts with more funding to hire qualified teachers, and educators can find creative ways to teach without the resources of higher-income schools.
“States need to make decisions right now about taking a close look at their discipline, procedures, and practices that disproportionately harm Black students,” Nellum said.
“Education systems, no matter where you’re born in this country, place an undue burden and harm on Black students,” he added. “And until we get serious about undoing that, I’m not sure that Black students anywhere in the country are going to experience the schools that they deserve.”