Pre-K leaders can use data to identify barriers for families experiencing poverty and to inform programmatic and policy improvements to better meet their needs. The Pre-K Data Equity Framework will encourage collection of data on the types of barriers these families face and can better equip leaders and programs to meet families’ needs through responsive and flexible programming.
The official threshold used to define poverty in the United States is intended to reflect insufficient income for meeting basic needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, and utilities. However, many experts critique the official threshold for being too low and not accounting for geographic differences in the cost of living. The Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), however, does account for current living needs and expenses. Despite the fact that child poverty rates are at their lowest point in 25 years—largely due to federal social safety net programs—there are still 1 in 10 children experiencing poverty, based on SPM figures. Additionally, 3 percent of all children live in what is considered deep poverty, or in families with net resources that amount to less than 50 percent of the supplemental poverty threshold. Although there have been broad declines in poverty, disparities persist: The social safety net yields less benefit for children in immigrant families or from Hispanic or Asian/Hawaiian/Pacific Islander backgrounds, relative to their non-immigrant, Black, or White peers.
Poverty is driven by a range of historical and structural inequities, such as low and unequal wages, workforce discrimination, high costs of living that require more than half of a family or household’s income to be spent on housing, unfair housing policies and practices like redlining that create racially segregated communities with concentrated poverty, unequal access to paid family and medical leave and other benefits that force a choice between income and health, and mass incarceration—the latter of which promotes poverty, shapes job opportunities post-incarceration, and hinders positive child outcomes. The pervasiveness of systemic inequities contributes to the generational nature of poverty and to related stress for families. Such systemic inequities also contribute to disproportionality in who experiences poverty, such as situational poverty due to the COVID-19 pandemic or job loss, and shapes families’ access to supports to manage related financial hardship. Families and children of color—including Black, Hispanic or Latino, and Indigenous families—are disproportionately more likely to experience poverty and related trauma.
The quality of a child’s education can prevent—or promote—poverty, even from the earliest experiences in the education system. Children from families experiencing poverty are more likely to live in communities where accessible pre-K programs are of low quality and have limited funding and resources, thereby undermining their opportunity to benefit from high-quality pre-K programs. Similarly, rural communities, disproportionately impacted by poverty and child care desserts, contend with challenges around sufficient supply of existing early childhood programs. Although socioeconomically diverse classrooms may offer some benefits for children, the importance of high-quality pre-K programs—regardless of their demographic makeup—cannot be overstated. Families experiencing poverty may also be at a disadvantage when navigating such challenges as transportation to and from pre-K programs, limited sick leave to adhere to programs’ sick policies, or program hours that do not align with work hours, including inflexible and nonstandard work hours.
There are some false perceptions that families experiencing poverty do not want to be involved in their child’s education. However, families experiencing poverty value their children’s education and desire to be involved despite barriers such as cultural differences and experiences with racism. For example, Black mothers of preschoolers enrolled in Head Start viewed parents’ role in children’s learning as either a primary role or as a collaborative partnership with the child’s teacher. Parents saw helping children within the home environment as a key means of staying involved—for example, by leveraging children’s television shows for home projects or practicing positive classroom behaviors. The lived experience of families experiencing poverty can inform more supportive program environments.
Data on the types of barriers faced by families experiencing poverty can better equip pre-K leaders and programs to meet these families’ needs through responsive and flexible programming.