Poverty Stuck in Place: Should Zip Codes Determine Prosperity?

Should your zip code in the United States determine what opportunities your children and families have? Unfortunately, it does.

The map above shows the distribution of children living in poverty within each county of the United States. Counties right next to each other have drastically different amount of children living below the poverty threshold. This isn’t such a secret when you visit nearby high-schools and notice the differences in the quality of the buildings, of the sports teams, and the differences in standardized test scores. You get what you pay for, but when your access to quality schools and food is affected by how much you and your neighbors make, is this fair?

Is it fair that 2-4 year olds have extremely unequal chances to attend pre-school programs? Especially when those that do attend them start kindergarten at a much higher proficiency level?

poverty 1


This gap never closes throughout these children’s lives–and even leads to different life outcomes with those who attend pre-school having higher graduation rates, and lower chances of committing crimes.

Is it fair that in a country with huge farm subsidies, our children still show up to school hungry? After a year-long pilot program in schools gave free breakfast to all students, teachers reported that students performed better academically, remained focused in the morning, and they reported less discipline problems. Compare the cost of feeding a child breakfast in school everyday with the cost of housing and feeding that child in correctional facilities as an adult. Which would you pay for?

Poverty 2

The US has programs to feed our hungry children, the number of children going hungry has started to rise. SNAP and WIC have been facing cyclical cuts over the past few years, and new bills introducing more cuts are being considered by Congress. Shockingly, this continues as studies find that teachers pay an average of $37 per month out of their own pocket to feed their hungry students. Principals even pay $59 a month. Is the United States too poor to close this gap?

Is it fair that a parent’s ability to work is limited by their ability to find and afford day-care? Poor, working parents are most in need of day-care assistance. Low-income work is less likely to offer sick pay or flexible work hours for children. After one family crises keeps a parent from showing up for work they can find themselves jobless–further preventing preventing a parent’s hard work of taking their family out of poverty.

Poverty 3

This is where human services programs and organizations are needed to level the playing field for all Americans, regardless of where you live. Human services programs help Americans help themselves, and to ensure that opportunities for prosperity are available to everyone.  Programs like medicaid and now the Affordable Care Act ensure that family crises don’t decimate a low-income family’s savings or employment status. Food programs ensure that children don’t go to school hungry, and head-start programs ensure that low-income children start at the same proficiency as students who live in wealthier counties, and where head-start programs are the norm. All of these programs ensure that low-income students are able to perform to their full potential, and when opportunities arise to advance themselves economically, they are prepared, mentally and physically, to take those opportunities and move ahead.

With the budget, the sequestration, and the shutdown crisis, the question becomes whether the United States can afford these investments in our children and families. The answer is–for the richest nation on Earth–yes. 

“Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,”is inscribed in the Statue of Liberty. But besides welcoming them in, can we also turn the tired and poor into prosperous Americans?

  1. Read “Hungry in Our Schools” here. 
  2. Read “Poverty and Education: Finding the Way Forward” here. 

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