Poverty and education

Poverty and education

Publisher: IIEP
Serie: Education Policy Series
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Two consistent research findings in the social sciences relate to the relationship between economic and education variables,
and therefore between education and poverty. Educational research has consistently found home background (socio-
economic status) to be an important determinant of educational outcomes, and economic research has shown that education
strongly affects earnings. Poverty is not simply the absence of financial resources.
According to Amartya Sen, poverty is the lack of capability to function effectively in society. Inadequate education can
thus be considered a form of poverty. Absolute poverty – the absence of adequate resources – hampers learning in developing
countries through poor nutrition, health, home circumstances (lack of books, lighting or places to do homework) and parental
education. It discourages enrolment and survival to higher grades, and also reduces learning in schools. The
relative poverty perspective emphasizes exclusion from the mainstream in rich
countries, which can reduce the motivation of the relatively poor and their ability to gain full benefits from education.
Education can reduce poverty in a number of ways. Firstly, more educated people are more likely to get jobs, are more productive,
and earn more. Secondly, though international literature finds no simple causal relationship between educational
attainment and the economic growth of a country, recent research shows that quality-adjusted education
is important for economic growth. More and better education improves a poor country’s economic growth and thereby
generates economic opportunities and incomes. Thirdly, education (particularly of girls) brings social benefits that improve
the situation of the poor, such as lower fertility, improved health care of children, and greater participation of women
in the labour market. The home background of pupils is the single most important factor influencing educational outcomes.
Poverty is strongly correlated with a range of other home background variables, including parental educational attainment,
thus it is difficult to separate the effects of limited financial resources from other home background factors. Analyses of international
educational assessment studies have shown that while socio-economicgradients (between home background and achievement) differ
greatly among countries, some schools manage to reduce the gradient by improving performance of poor students.
High financial costs of schooling make education less affordable to the poor, who are very cost sensitive (demand is price
elastic). Opportunity costs of education are often also high (for example, children may work in agriculture or do domestic
chores such as fetching water). In many societies, the benefits of education may be low or not well understood, particularly
for girls. Lack of educational resources in poor schools sometimes hampers learning. Despite financial incentives, good teachers
usually prefer to teach in richer schools. The correct resource combination may also be important. Without good textbooks
or classroom resources, more teachers cannot necessarily improve the quality of learning.
There appears to be a limit to what schools alone can do to overcome the effects of poverty on education. Educational
interventions throughout the world show at best modest success. Successful interventions seem to deal well with a
specific contex t, rat her t han offer ing models that can be copied. A benevolent economic environment that accentuates the
gains from education may be necessary for many educational interventions to have a strong effect on poverty.


Authors Van der Berg, Servaas
ISBN 978-92-803-1322-2
Date of publication 2008
Number of pages 28 p.

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