The Concentration of Poverty in American Schools

An exclusive analysis uncovers that students of color in the largest 100 cities in the United States are much more likely to attend schools where most of their peers are poor or low-income.

A drawing of short pencils on a gray background and one long pencil on a white background
Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

In almost all major American cities, most African American and Hispanic students attend public schools where a majority of their classmates qualify as poor or low-income, a new analysis of federal data shows.

This systemic economic and racial isolation looms as a huge obstacle for efforts to make a quality education available to all American students. Researchers have found that the single most-powerful predictor of racial gaps in educational achievement is the extent to which students attend schools surrounded by other low-income students.

Underscoring the breadth of the challenge, the economic segregation of minority students persists across virtually all types of cities, from fast-growing Sunbelt places like Austin, Denver, Dallas, and Charlotte to struggling Rust Belt communities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee, to the nation’s largest metropolitan centers, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston. But cities, educators, and researchers are also exploring new ways to abate the negative impact of concentrated poverty on black and brown students.

In about half of the largest 100 cities, most African American and Latino students attend schools where at least 75 percent of all students qualify as poor or low-income under federal guidelines. These stark results emerge from an analysis of data from the National Equity Atlas. The Atlas is a joint project of PolicyLink and the University of Southern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, or PERE. Following federal guidelines, the National Equity Atlas defines low-income students as those eligible for the federal free- and reduced-lunch program. That includes students with incomes up to $44,863 for a family of four, or 185 percent of the federal poverty line. (Students from families with incomes up to the 130 percent of the poverty line, or $31,525 for a family of four, are eligible for free lunch; the remainder can obtain reduced-price lunches.)

The overwhelming isolation of students of color in schools with mostly low-income classmates threatens to undermine efforts both to improve educational outcomes and to provide a pipeline of skilled workers for the economy at a time when such students comprise a majority of the nation’s public school enrollment. Educational reformers are quick to underscore that in individual schools around the country, dedicated teachers and principals have produced impressive results even for students submerged in communities of pervasive poverty. But, overall, concentrated poverty is tightly correlated with gaps in educational achievement.

“It’s the measure of segregation that is most strongly correlated to the racial-achievement gap,” says Sean F. Reardon, a professor at Stanford University’s graduate school of education and one of the nation’s leading experts on residential and educational segregation. “The difference in the rate at which black, Hispanic, and white students go to school with poor classmates is the best predictor of the racial-achievement gap.”

The latest figures from the National Center for Educational Statistics show that nationwide, about three-fourths of both African American and Hispanic young people (compared with about one-third of white students) attend schools where most of their classmates qualify as low-income. The analysis expands on that national portrait to examine the extent of economic isolation at the city level. That assessment points to one overwhelming conclusion: Economic isolation and the concentration of poverty among students of color afflicts not only a few struggling cities but virtually all cities—including many that have seen the most robust growth in jobs, incomes, and population since the Great Recession.

The economic segregation facing African American and Hispanic students represents the convergence of many trends, including the stubbornly high rates of childhood poverty since the Great Recession; persistent patterns of housing segregation in many major cities; the increasing economic polarization in many metropolitan areas that has resulted in more residents living either in affluent or poor neighborhoods, and fewer residing in middle-income communities; and the general retreat from efforts to promote racial or economic integration in the schools. Together these factors have left most African American and Hispanic students marooned in schools where economic struggle is the rule and financial stability—and all the social and educational benefits that flow from that—is very much the exception. “Kids who spend more than half of their childhood in poverty have a high-school graduation rate of 68 percent,” says Abigail Langston, a senior associate at PolicyLink, and a public fellow at the American Council of Learned Societies. “You see how these things compound over time. There is a link between housing policy, economic and racial segregation—you see what those do to schools and to people who grow up in those neighborhoods. There is a vicious feedback loop.”

The issue, Reardon says, isn’t “that sitting next to a poor kid makes you do less well in school.” Rather, he says, “it’s that school poverty turns out to be a good proxy for the quality of a school. They are in poorer communities, they have less local resources, they have fewer parents with college degrees, they have fewer two-parent families where there are parents who can come spend time volunteering in the school, they have a harder time attracting the best teachers. So for a lot of reasons, schools serving poor kids tend to have fewer resources, both economic and social-capital resources.”

Students sit down for lunch at Rose Hill Elementary School in Commerce City, Colorado. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

The cumulative effect of these disadvantages has proved overwhelming almost everywhere. Reardon and his colleagues have studied test scores for students in all of the nation’s roughly 12,000 school districts. And while they have not finished sorting all of the data, the preliminary results underscore how difficult it is for schools alone to overcome the interlocking challenges created by the economic segregation of low-income students.

“We can look at every poor district in the United States and see if there are any that are doing reasonably well, where kids are performing at least at the national average,” Reardon says. “And the answer is virtually none. You can find isolated schools that are doing … better than you would predict. But the weight of socioeconomic disadvantage—or, on the other side of the scale, of advantage—is really quite big. We don’t have much evidence of places that have been systematically successful when they serve very large populations of low-income students. It’s a big lift.“

Those daunting findings reinforce the gravity of the economic isolation for students of color that the data reveal. Among the key findings:

  • Kids of color represent a majority of the student body in 83 of the 100 largest cities. In all but three of those 83 cities (Honolulu, and Chula Vista and Fremont, in California), at least half of them attend a school where a majority of their peers are poor or low-income. In 58 of those cities, at least three-fourths of nonwhite students attend majority low-income schools.

  • Data are available for African American students in 97 large cities. In 83 of those 97 cities (or 85.6 percent), the majority of African American students attends schools where most of their classmates qualify as poor or low-income. In 54 of those cities, at least 80 percent of black students attend schools where most of their classmates qualify as poor or low-income.

The cities where the very highest shares of African American students attend mostly low-income schools testify to the breadth of the problem. They include communities from all corners of the country, and range from weathered Rust Belt communities (like Detroit and Newark) to Sunbelt high-fliers (like Dallas, Houston, and Nashville). In order, the cities where the most black students attend majority low-income schools include: Detroit; San Bernardino, Calif.; Newark; Milwaukee; Birmingham, Ala.; Hialeah, Fla.; Boston; Chicago; Philadelphia; New York; Memphis, Tenn.; Baton Rouge, La.; Dallas; North Las Vegas; Stockton, Calif.; Wichita, Kan.; New Orleans; Tulsa, Okla.; Houston; and Miami.

Only in 14 of the 97 cities with available data do less than half of black students attend majority low-income schools. The cities with the very lowest share of blacks in high-poverty schools include San Jose, Reno, and Colorado Springs. But most of those 14 have relatively small black student populations. In 11 of those cities, black students represent 11 percent of the student population or less, with the exceptions only of Raleigh, and Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, Virginia.

Students listen to a lesson during seventh grade class at Samuel J. Green Charter School in New Orleans. (Lee Celano/Reuters)

Among Hispanic students, the picture is noticeably similar. Data are available for them in 96 cities; in 85 (or 88.5 percent), a majority of Hispanic students attend schools with mostly low-income classmates. In 53, at least 80 percent of Hispanic students attend majority low-income schools. The cities where the most Hispanic kids attend schools of concentrated poverty also span the spectrum. In order, they include: Detroit; Newark; San Bernardino, Calif.; Philadelphia; Milwaukee; Boston; Dallas; Irving, Texas; Chicago; Oakland, Calif.; Hialeah, Fla.; North Las Vegas, Nev.; Los Angeles; Santa Ana, Calif.; Nashville and Memphis, Tenn.; New York; Baton Rouge, La.; Anaheim, Calif.; and Wichita, Kan.

Only in 11 of the 96 cities with available data do fewer than half of Hispanic students attend schools where most of their classmates qualify as poor. Those 11 also have relatively small Latino student populations. Only four of those cities—Colorado Springs; Plano, Texas; Chandler, Arizona; and Henderson, Nevada—have schools where Latinos represent more than 20 percent of their student body. Even in those four, Latino students represent less than a third of students.

In fully 82 of the 96 cities with data for both African American and Hispanic students, at least half of both groups attend majority low-income schools. In 65 of those 96 cities, at least 70 percent of both black and Hispanic students attend majority low-income schools. In Chicago, 96 percent of both black and Latino students attend majority-poverty schools. In New York City, 96 percent of black and 95 percent of Latino students attend majority low-income schools. And in Los Angeles, 85 percent of black and 96 percent of Latino students attend schools where a majority of their peers are poor.

The experience for white students, who now represent a minority of the public-school student body nationwide, remains very different. Figures are available for whites in 95 cities. Only in 35 of them (or almost 37 percent) do most white students attend schools where a majority of their classmates qualify as poor. At least 80 percent of whites attend majority low-income schools in just six cities (compared to 54 cities for African Americans and 55 for Hispanics). The cities where such large level of whites experience concentrated poverty are all places confronting long-term economic decline: Detroit; Newark; Hialeah, Fla.; San Bernardino, and Stockton, Calif.; and Jersey City. That stands in clear contrast to the economic isolation confronting minority students even in many thriving cities.

Even more strikingly, in 49 cities, or over half the total where data is available, fewer than 30 percent of white students attend majority low-income schools. In just 11 cities do so few African American students attend majority low-income schools; for Hispanics, the number is just seven cities.

The trends in the patterns of schools experiencing the deepest economic isolation—institutions where at least 75 percent of students qualify as poor or low-income—further underscore the stark racial divergence in these findings. In just four cities do most white students attend schools where at least three-fourths of their classmates qualify as low-income. But most black students attend schools confronting that level of concentrated poverty in fully 51 cities; for Hispanics the number is 54.

These high levels of concentrated poverty in schools persist—and have increased overall—even in cities where there has been tremendous growth since the recession. Many advocates for low-income communities say economic isolation in the schools represents one of the most complex and consequential barriers to equalizing opportunity. “It seems to be the thing that everybody points to as the biggest challenge,” says Sarah Treuhaft, PolicyLink’s director of equitable growth initiatives. “It’s the hardest nut to crack because these issues are so deeply entrenched [due to] the housing issues that have created segregated communities. Bussing is a challenging solution. People like to attend their neighborhood schools; and there is so much pushback on integration. There are deep structural issues that can’t be tackled one at a time.”

Fifth-grade art class students at Savoy School in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Likewise, Reardon said it’s unrealistic to expect to bridge these disparities solely through changes in the schools themselves. “We don’t have much evidence that we can make major improvements in educational equality solely through school policy alone,” he says. “Educational policy has to be part of the picture. But we need more than that. We need to think about residential integration … we need to think about school integration, which gets easier when you have more residential integration; we need to think about increasing economic parity between blacks and whites.” In some cities, urban leaders are trying new strategies to confront these trends. They say that for a city’s economic growth to continue, they need to craft policy that ensures their own young people are equipped to compete for the jobs the city is creating.

Dallas is one city focusing more on these dynamics. “North Texas is on fire in terms of job growth; it’s just been disproportionately shared in terms of who got the jobs,” says Todd Williams, the executive director of Commit! Partnership, a nonprofit working to improve college and career-readiness levels in Dallas County, Texas. “Part of our issue is that we need to improve the overall quality of our schools.”

In Dallas, one of the country’s fastest-growing cities, almost 80 percent of students attend a high-poverty school, according to the data. It ranks fifth among the largest 100 cities by share of students attending high-poverty schools, behind only Hialeah, Florida; San Bernardino, California; Newark; and Chicago. The levels of poverty deepen in comparisons by race. More than 83 percent of Dallas’s black students and 88 percent of its Latino students attend high-poverty schools.

Tackling that level of concentrated poverty is what Mayor Mike Rawlings has called the “most important challenges Dallas faces as a city.” For Williams, who is also Rawlings’s education-policy adviser, Dallas’s future economy depends entirely on whether the city will be able to adequately educate and prepare all of its students for the workforce. “We have something like a 5-6 percent college-readiness rate for our African American and Hispanic children, and they represent 80 percent of our enrollment,” Williams says. “If we don’t figure this out over the next 12 years, we’re going to be graduating a lot of students who aren’t ready for post-secondary education. In a 2025 economy, that’s absolutely suicidal.”

Texas Governor Greg Abbott has set a goal for 60 percent of adults statewide to have some post-secondary training by 2030. In Dallas, that challenge is formidable: 34 percent of adults in Dallas County now have post-secondary training, according to Williams’ Commit! Partnership. Yet only 14 percent of recent graduates were prepared for college, according to the Texas Education Agency’s standards for ACT and SAT scores for reading and math. Only a little more than one-fourth of the county’s graduates complete a postsecondary program within six years.

The city is already feeling the economic consequences, says Williams, as companies relocate to other cities in north Texas that can provide a more skilled workforce. “We’re going to continue to go backwards in our goal to have 60 percent of adults with postsecondary degrees if we don’t make a very concerted effort,” he says. To that end, Dallas ISD has launched a bonus program to incentivize its best teachers to teach at struggling schools. It is now focused on expanding funding and access to prekindergarten programs, says Williams, as well as implementing a “controlled choice” model of socioeconomic integration across the district.

Controlled-choice integration is a strategy at various stages of implementation in many cities that has so far demonstrated positive academic outcomes and cost savings. Strategies on how exactly to implement it vary, but ultimately parents rank their top picks in a lottery system, and the district reserves half of each school’s seats to low-income and half to higher-income students. Socioeconomic integration is a legal alternative to racial reintegration—ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2007 in the case of Parents Involved v. Seattle—that largely produces the same effect. It is also more popular option among parents than citywide busing because they want their children to attend nearby schools, says Brad Lander, a member of the New York City Council. To encourage experimentation with the controlled-choice model, the White House has included a $120 million grant program in this year’s budget for school districts interested in integrating their schools by socioeconomic status.

The controlled-choice option is one valuable tool if it’s employed with other strategies to uphold school quality, says Sonja Brookins Santelises, the vice president of K12 policy at Education Trust, a nonprofit group that advocates for low-income students. That system can work when districts improve the quality of all schools, so none are “bad options,” and when resources within each individual school—like advanced placement classes—are available to all students, she says. Parents also need to have access to racial-achievement gaps to track progress, especially as schools integrate. “In some of the districts where I’ve been, with highly sought-after charters and schools, when I asked achievement data to be broken down by race and gender, there were huge gaps even though the overall [data were positive],” she says.

New York is still in the early planning stages in implementing controlled choice in a handful of districts, though it’s a model Lander says he’d like to eventually see expand throughout the city. In the meantime, he and fellow councilmember Ritchie Torres introduced legislation that now requires the city’s department of education to provide annual reports on school diversity. “What you measure is what you’re paying attention to, and we weren’t paying attention year over year to school segregation,” Lander says. “This requires that every year we look and see how we’re doing: Are we doing better or worse than last year? What are we doing about it? Over time it will also be the place to go to see whether our strategies are working or not.”