Education Equity

How Do We Talk About Poverty in Schools?

Poverty affects students’ state of mind, and educators must be sensitive of the terms commonly used when discussing children and families living in poverty.

December 3, 2015

Editor's note: This piece was adapted from Turning High-Poverty Schools into High-Performing Schools by William H. Parrett and Kathleen M. Budge.

Children who live in poverty are as worthy of attending good schools as their more affluent counterparts, and much is known about what it takes to transform schools into places that better meet their needs. Improving such schools begins with leaders who are unequivocally committed to equity. This commitment starts with a better understanding of the meaning and influence of poverty in the lives of the students they serve.

Poverty in America is not easily defined, nor can its causes be simplistically explained. It can be experienced by anyone -- male and female, as well as people of all ages, racial or ethnic groups, and immigration status.

How Is Poverty Defined?

In the United States, the federal government defines poverty as a certain level of income relative to family size. For example, in 2014, the poverty threshold ranged from $12,071 for a single person to $24,230 for a family of four. Originally coined the "thrifty food plan," the formula used to establish the poverty line was created by federal statisticians who based it upon what was determined to be three times the annual cost of food for a family of three in 1963. Although the basic formula for defining who lives in poverty is viewed as excessively conservative and controversial, it continues to be used as the official measure. In 2007, the U.S. Census Bureau released 12 alternatives to the current formula, all but one of which set the official poverty rate at a higher level (Neuman, 2008). According to Sarah Fass (2009) with the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP), the current income threshold is inadequate for even the bare necessities, and in some areas of the country it is grossly inadequate. For instance, Fass estimates a family of four living in a lower-cost region of the country needs between $37,000 and $41,000 to meet its basic needs; in locations where the cost of living is higher, the same family needs $52,000 to $67,000.

What Do We Mean by Poverty in the Context of Schools?

It is important to be aware of the ways in which we, as educators, define and discuss poverty in schools. When we define poverty in schools, we primarily mean the percentage of students who are eligible for the free and reduced-price meal program. For the 2015-16 school year, income eligibility for reduced-price meals was 185 percent of the federal poverty line and 130 percent for free meals. In less complex terms, a family of four with a gross income of $40,793 was eligible for reduced-price meals; and if they earned less than $28,665, they could receive free meals. Although schools are sometimes criticized for using this criterion for describing the percentage of students living in poverty, clearly these income levels fall at or far below the needed income level estimated by the NCCP for basic necessities. These families face significant challenges, and the schools that serve them do as well.

How Do We Talk About Poverty in Schools?

In practice, educators use many terms or labels to discuss children and families who live in poverty. Gloria Rodriguez and James Fabionar (2010) assert that the many terms we use should serve "as a reminder of how often we are called on in education to talk about -- but not necessarily to" -- our students and their families who live with low incomes (p. 64). They claim these terms are not uniformly understood and reveal varying understandings of poverty in the context of school that are largely influenced by thinking about children and families who live in poverty as a "deficit." They identify the following commonly used terms or labels, together with their purposes in schools:

  • Low Income: Typically describes a family-level measure indexed against a certain average or range. It can be assigned to students and their families by determining their eligibility for specially funded programs that rely on a particular income cutoff to select program participants.

  • Free or Reduced-Price Lunch Eligible: Using the poverty threshold established by the U.S. government for low-income students, eligibility is determined for meal programs offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture based on income.

  • Title I Eligible: Individual eligibility is based on a combined consideration of academic performance and income eligibility using similar guidelines as those used to determine eligibility for free or reduced-price meals.

  • Economically Disadvantaged: Lower economic status creates a disadvantage in securing full educational benefits that in turn might guarantee certain economic benefits. Accountability systems that require disaggregation of data by certain student subgroups typically include the category of "economically disadvantaged" students. Application of this label can vary, but it is often equated with eligibility for free or reduced-price meals.

  • Low Socioeconomic Status (Low SES): The term identifies students who are low income and identified according to certain social background characteristics that are believed to operate in tandem with economic status to facilitate or impede social mobility. Within schools, "low SES" is often used as shorthand for many status definitions or social processes. (Adapted from Rodriguez & Fabionar, 2010, p. 65)

As children we may have been taught that "sticks and stones can break our bones, but names can never hurt us." Unfortunately, that is simply not true. Children who live in poverty, like all children, deserve to be treated with respect and in a manner that preserves their dignity. The words we use to describe and label children do matter. Educators must reflect upon the many labels used to describe children (and their families) who live in poverty, and critique their own use of such terms, to become attuned to the many ways that schools unwittingly limit students' self-determination.

As educators, we must be sensitive to the effects of poverty on our students' state of mind and ensure that we separate their developing sense of self from their living conditions. As a starting point, we must be extremely careful how we talk about children who live in poverty. For example, describing these students as living in homes with a low income or with low SES (socioeconomic status) is very different, and more accurate, than calling them "low-income students," "low-SES students," or "high-poverty kids." This distinction may seem like splitting hairs, but it is important.


  • Fass, S. (2009). Measuring poverty in the United States. New York: National Center for Children in Poverty.
  • Rodriguez, G. M., & Fabionar, J. (2010). The impact of poverty on students and schools: Exploring the social justice leadership implications. In C. Marshall & M. Oliva (Eds.), Leadership for social justice (pp. 55–73). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

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