The Concentration of Poverty in American Schools: Race, Economics & Housing Policies

The Concentration of Poverty in American Schools: Race, Economics & Housing Policies
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

There is a significant concentration of poverty in American schools in economic and racial terms. On average, children from high-income families outperform those from low-income families on measures of academic achievement, such as standardized test scores. Similarly, White students tend to outperform Black and Hispanic students. These achievement gaps persist even after controlling for factors like family income and student demographics.

There are a number of possible explanations for the achievement gap. One is that students from high-income families have greater access to resources, such as high-quality schools and tutors. Another possibility is that racism and discrimination play a role in preventing some groups of students from achieving their full potential.

However, despite some setbacks, racial disparities are gradually narrowing. In fact, the deficit in reading and mathematical skills of black teens has been significantly reduced by as much as 50% compared to four decades ago (Reardon & Robinson, 2007).

Still, the concentration of poverty in American schools is still keeping the gap wide, especially for minorities. In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, African-American students in Washington D.C., Delaware, Virginia, South Carolina, and Kansas have been denied admission to certain public schools, leading to segregation among student populations (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 1954). While the court ultimately concluded that it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, similar cases still happen across the United States both at district and school levels.

This article examines the effects of economic and racial gaps on educational achievements. Whether in It also touches on some initiatives and their partial results in curtailing the effects of segregation.

The Socio-Economic Segregation in American Schools: Table of Contents

  1. How Concentrated Poverty is in American Schools?
  2. What Drives These Educational Inequities?
  3. Racial Gaps vs. Segregation by Poverty in Educational Achievement
  4. Initiatives to Improve Equal Access to Quality Education

How Concentrated Poverty is in American Schools?

Researchers have found out that one of the most powerful indicators of racial gaps in educational achievement, and even access to school, is poverty (Brownstein & Boschma, 2020). Economic segregation persists in all types of cities in the U.S. Even students within large metropolitan areas, such as Houston, Chicago, and New York experience significant hurdles. The concentration of non-white students in low-income schools is restricting access to quality education as these districts often have very limited budgets, very few academic opportunities, and small pools of talented teachers.

The effects of these factors compound over time. The link between economic gaps, housing policies, and racial segregation becomes clearer, especially in student demographics within those districts.

Students of color represent most of the student population in 83 of the country’s largest cities. Aside from three cities (Honolulu, Fremont, and Chula Vista), at least half of these students attend low-income schools. And in 58 of those cities, at least three-quarters of non-white students go to schools where the majority of their peers are low-income or poor.

What are the effects of racial segregation among school districts?

A snapshot of academic performance in numerous school districts shows poor school districts with predominantly African American and Hispanic students are several grades behind (Rich et al., 2016).

For instance, sixth-graders in Detroit City School District, Michigan, are performing 2.3-grade levels below average. The area is composed of households with around $27,000 median family income.

Detroit City School District, Michigan Student Demographics

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Source: Rich et al. (2016)

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On the other end of the spectrum, students in the Lexington District in Massachusetts perform 3.8-grade levels above average. Families in this area earn around $163,000 and are predominantly white.

Lexington, Massachusetts Student Demographics

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Source: Rich et al. (2016)

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What Drives These Educational Inequities?

About three-fourths of Hispanic and African American youths attend low-income schools. There is a stark difference compared to one-third of white students attending schools within the same economic group (Brownstein & Boschma, 2020). The segregation of these students in low-income schools is the combined effect of the following factors:

  • Housing segregation in most major cities.
  • Increasing economic polarization in metropolitan areas where more residents are living in either poor or affluent neighborhoods and fewer are living in middle-income communities.
  • Decreasing efforts from local, state, and federal government in promoting economic and racial integration in schools.
  • Persistent high rates of childhood poverty.

These factors have historical roots that are still felt by minority students to this day. Racially exclusive housing and zoning laws turned into discrimination in mortgage lending and even career opportunities in local industries (School poverty, 2018). These persistent problems continuously dispossess communities and families of color. They are often excluded from economic opportunities and prosperity while wealth accumulates among white communities.

Consequently, it results in geographic concentrations of poverty and wealth. As such, students of color are more likely to attend high-poverty public schools compared to white students. Such disparity is extremely evident in primary schools, which is a significant hurdle to students’ early academic development attending low-income schools.

Source: National Equity Atlas (2018)

Racial Gaps vs. Segregation by Poverty in Educational Achievement

While the echoes of the past’s racial segregation still ring loud today, a new study suggests that poverty segregation is the dominant reason behind the students’ achievement gap and not primarily racial segregation (Reardon et al., 2019).

Racial segregation, if considered alone, accounts for the achievement gap among non-white students. That is, minority students attending school with a primary minority population are less likely to achieve academic success.

However, a closer look at poverty factors in schools shows that income level segregation plays a more direct role in students’ academic achievements. That is, attending school with primarily poor or low-income students significantly lowers the chances of better academic performance.

Take note that the study does not discount the effects of racial segregation. The research suggests that poverty segregation and racial segregation are highly correlated. It underlines the fact that the racial achievement gap among African American students is caused by attending schools where the majority of the students belong to low-income families and not because the student population is predominantly of color.

As such, racial integration is not only the solution to closing that academic gap. Integrating by income, along with integration by race, should result in better outcomes for students as the two are closely linked.

Initiatives to Improve Equal Access to Quality Education

There are numerous initiatives launched on both national and local levels that address the effects of socio-economic segregation in academic achievement. While they have varying results, the data gathered from these programs are valuable for future action plans.

No Child Left Behind

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (or NCLB) aimed to significantly reduce the socio-economic and racial achievement gaps across the nation. A decade after its passing, there is no concrete evidence that the initiative led to narrowing racial achievement gaps on a national level (Reardon et al., 2013). Within-state achievement gaps have been slowly narrowing before the NCLB. The trend did not change after the introduction of the program.

However, there is evidence showing effects in states facing more subgroup-specific accountability pressure. States with larger achievement gaps and prevalent between-school segregation showed narrowing of white-Hispanic and white-black achievement gaps. On the other hand, within states that are facing smaller achievement gaps, less segregation, and less pressure, the program seems to have widened the white-Hispanic and white-black gaps.

For instance, African American students 4th graders gained 15 points in their average mathematics scores from 1999 to 2012. But, it is still far from the performance of white students with an average of 252 points.

Source: Erickson & Johnson (2015)

While the results are far from conclusive, experts are looking into factors that contribute to NCLB’s state-specific results.

Inclusionary Zoning Policy in Montgomery County, MD

Montgomery County, Maryland’s inclusionary zoning policy aims to address issues in economic mobility and its residents’ general well-being by solving poverty density (Schwartz et al., 2015). In the county, property developers are required by the law to offer around 12% to 15% of new homes at below-market rates. They also need to allow public housing authorities to purchase a part of these units. As a result, about two-thirds of housing residents in the county reside in economically diverse and low-poverty neighborhoods.

While there is not enough data yet for conclusive proof of bridging economic gaps, the outlook is positive, especially on neighborhood perceptions and residents’ social networks in mixed-income communities compared to traditional public housing clusters.

Residents in mixed-income communities belong to diverse social networks, with up to 31% of members coming from different ethnicities. This is significantly higher compared to those living in traditional public housing schemes, with only 23% of their social connections of a different race.

Diverse communities, in terms of income, also show high levels of belongingness. Up to 73% of individuals in mixed-income areas feel that they belong. On the other hand, only 47% of traditional public housing residents feel the same in their communities.

Significant results, especially in terms of academic achievements and economic gaps, are yet to be seen. However, having access to diverse neighborhoods opens various opportunities for individuals from low-income families.

Berkeley’s 2020 Vision

Berkeley’s 2020 Vision is a city-level program that aims to eliminate racial gaps in academic achievements within its public schools (Ridley & Steffen, 2018). The City of Berkeley has one of the widest gaps among Hispanic and African American students with their white peers. The initiative includes numerous activities through the collaborative actions of the Mayor, the City Manager, the Berkeley Unified School District, Berkeley City College, and the University of California at Berkeley.

According to the City Manager’s 2018 general report, Progress Towards Education Equity activities are already seeing improvements among African American and Hispanic students (Ridley & Steffen, 2018). Overall, school attendance is improving, along with third-grade reading skills and kindergarten readiness. While there are remaining challenges that need addressing, over 50 programs are aligned to advance the goals of Berkeley’s 2020 Vision.

Addressing Socio-Economic Segregation in the Future

More and more literature continues to highlight the significance of school poverty in the academic achievements of students. As further evidence of its effects on achievement gaps, government institutions can introduce programs that address specific factors, especially on state and city levels.

Because racial segregation and economic segregation are tightly woven, narrowing the income gap between these communities may also alleviate discrimination and other racial issues within schools. However, current progress is still slow as initiatives and programs adjust to existing and new challenges, including the pressing demand to provide free college education in America.

In the meantime, online education may provide an alternative solution, at least in terms of accessibility and learning pace. Today, one can have an online postsecondary degree in a wide range of disciplines, from supply chain management and web development, to construction management and English studies.


  1. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483. (1954). Retrieved December 31, 2020, from
  2. Brownstein, R., & Boschma, J. (2020, August 21). Students of Color Are Much More Likely to Attend Schools Where Most of Their Peers Are Poor. Retrieved December 31, 2020, from The Atlantic.
  3. Erickson, L., & Johnson, S. (2015, February 6). Did No Child Left Behind Work? Retrieved December 31, 2020, from Third Way.
  4. Reardon, S. F., & Robinson, J. P. (2007). Patterns and Trends in Racial/Ethnic and Socioeconomic Academic Achievement Gaps. Handbook of Research in Education Finance and Policy. doi:10.4324/9780203961063.ch28
  5. Reardon, S. F., Greenberg, E. H., Kalogrides, D., Shores, K. A., & Valentino, R. A. (2013). Left Behind? The Effect of No Child Left Behind on Academic Achievement Gaps. Center for Education Policy Analysis.
  6. Reardon, S. F., Weathers, E. S., Fahle, E. M., Jang, H., & Kalogrides, D. (2019). Is Separate Still Unequal? New Evidence on School Segregation and Racial Academic Achievement Gaps (Rep.). Stanford, CA: Center for Education Policy Analysis, Stanford University. doi:
  7. Rich, M., Cox, A., & Bloch, M. (2016, April 29). Money, Race and Success: How Your School District Compares. Retrieved December 31, 2020, from The New York Times.
  8. Ridley, D., & Steffen, E. (2018). Update on Berkeley’s 2020 Vision (Rep.). Berkeley: Office of the City Manager.
  9. School poverty. (2018). Retrieved December 31, 2020, from
  10. Schwartz, H., Burkhauser, S., Griffin, B., Kennedy, D., Green, Jr., H., Kennedy-Hendricks, A., & Pollack, C. (2015). Inclusionary Zoning Can Improve Outcomes for Public Housing Residents (Rep.). Housing Policy Debate

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