Foreword: This article deals with the tragic consequences of poverty, specifically the devastating effect that poverty has on education. Although it is stated that poverty is associated with serious socio-economic problems, this does not imply that such problems do not occur in higher-income communities. It also does not imply that there are not decent, stable people in impoverished communities. In all the years that the author worked in such communities, she met many brave parents who only wished to provide for their families and to build a better future for their children. This article is dedicated to them.

“Poverty is a monster, but fortunately it is not near my home and my life. It is out there somewhere and the less I know about it, the better. It is bad for my conscience.”

Really? No. Poverty is everybody’s business. It pervades our society and influences every aspect of your and my everyday life. We cannot get away from it by hiding away in our worlds protected by security systems and affluent living. To deny that it exists will not let it go away.

Poverty is not noble or romantic. Poverty is a tragedy with heart-breaking consequences and millions of South Africans are in this monster’s grip. Very few people succeed in rising above their disadvantaged circumstances; for most, it is inevitably handed over from one generation to the next.

What is “poor”?  According to the report on poverty by Statistics SA (2017), three poverty lines are used to measure poverty.

  FPL (Food Poverty Line): Here a person’s income only allows him to buy the minimum daily number of calories that he needs to survive and be healthy and nothing else.

  LBPL (Lower-bound Poverty Line): Here a person can afford food, but if he wants to buy non-food goods, he has to sacrifice food in order to obtain this.

  UBPL (Upper-bound Poverty Line): Here a person can afford food and non-food goods.

According to this report, 49% of the adult population in South Africa were living below the UBPL in 2017; in other words, their income did not provide for more than mere survival. The figure for the Western Cape was 33,2% and for Gauteng Province 29,3% – the lowest in SA. Poverty was more severe in households headed by women than by men.

Oxfam’s recently released Inequality Report of 2019 found that the SA population living in poverty grew with 11% from 2011 (27.3 million) to 2015 (30.4 million). Oxfam executive director in SA, Sipho Mthathi, who introduced the report, added that the number of persons in the country living in what is regarded as extreme poverty — that is, people living below the 2015 Food Poverty Line of R441 per person a month – increased from 11 million in 2011 to 13.8 million in 2015, which represents 25.2% of the population. Black African women in South Africa fared the worst, with 49.2% of them living below the lower bound poverty line. 

Have you heard the saying: You need money to make money? This seems to be true. The inequality between the haves and the have-nots is continuously increasing. The term “the rich keep getting richer” is best illustrated by the $2 billion (R27.7bn) a day increase in the wealth of the world’s billionaires over the last year alone. This, while the poorest 3.8 billion people became poorer by 11%, according to Oxfam’s Inequality Report. In contrast to the rich, people who eke out a living do not have the funds to invest in education, businesses or offshore investments to improve their situation.

There is a host of socio-economic problems associated with poverty and, although these problems can occur in any type of community, the prevalence is much higher in low-income communities than in more affluent areas. Families living in impoverished communities often face multiple stressful life events, including family trauma and despair, substance abuse, gang violence, housing instability, malnutrition, and incarceration. These challenges not only affect the people directly involved, but also the many decent, stable people living there.

The effect of poverty on education

On 2 September 2019, Ashwell Jenneker of Statistics SA said on the KykNet program Prontuit that poverty and inequality are the biggest issues in SA today, and the biggest contributors to these are unemployment and education.

Education is one of the strongest predictors of prosperity worldwide and the most powerful tool to combat poverty. It is the backbone of building a strong economy. If children can learn marketable skills in school, they can be deployed in the labour market.

In South Africa, roughly 75–80% of learners come from poor households and they do not have the opportunity to attend quality pre-school education (1). Poverty has a seriously detrimental effect on early childhood development, with the result that children enter the school system unprepared to receive teaching and fall behind almost immediately. With the over-full classrooms and high demands that the curriculum makes on educators and learners, they never catch up and eventually drop out. Learners dropping out of school has become a national crisis. According to the Department of Basic Education (2015), only about 52% of learners enrolled in Grade 1 will complete school. The remaining 58% leave school poorly equipped to earn a living, maintain their families and contribute to the economy. The author remembers this boy Peter (*). He came from a family where Dad was unemployed and both parents abused substances. He was a neglected child who functioned below his age level. The classes were large and the quality of teaching support not good enough to enable him to catch up with the educational demands of his grade. By the time he was in Grade 5, he was so far behind and so bored and frustrated with school, that he started to present with disruptive behaviour in class. This was often met with a harsh response from his educators, who struggled to deliver the curriculum and did not have an understanding of such learners’ behaviour. In the end, Peter was suspended several times for bad behaviour and he ultimately dropped out of school. He left school without any marketable skills to enable him to escape the poverty that he grew up in and the cycle of poverty continued. His educator was relieved that the classroom was once again peaceful, but he did not consider the bleak future that Peter faced. There are too many Peters in our country.

It is therefore imperative that we have a look at the elements that have an impact on children’s ability to progress in school and gain an education. A report by the World Bank (2011) describes the risk factors associated with poverty that seriously impact on early childhood development as ‘less stimulating learning environments, less responsive parenting, more frequent depression amongst mothers, poor nutrition, a higher prevalence of domestic violence, poor housing conditions, community violence and pollution’. The developmental delays caused by these risk factors increase as children grow older (2). Some of the factors that have a profoundly negative impact on children’s academic development will be discussed.

The quality of parenting

Children grow and thrive in the context of close and dependable relationships that provide love and nurturance, security, responsive interaction, and encouragement for exploration. Without at least one such relationship, children’s development is disrupted and the consequences can be severe and long-lasting. In order to function well at school, children need to be emotionally and socially ready. The author experienced over and over that children from low-income families entered school without the necessary social and emotional school readiness and immediately fell behind. Children need social skills, because school is a social environment and they are expected to know how to form friendships, share, take turns and work in groups. They also need to be emotionally mature in order to separate from the parent, look after their own belongings, ask for assistance and execute instructions. Children who are not nurtured and supported physically and emotionally by their parents or caregivers have difficulty in acquiring these skills.

Why are impoverished parents less able to exercise healthy parenting skills? There may be several reasons. Firstly, parenting is based on the quality of parenting that people received when they grew up. They tend to repeat the pattern of parenting behaviour that their parents followed without consciously being aware of it. Children of loving, caring parents will probably treat their children the same. When parents were neglected and abused by their parents, they assume that that is the pattern to follow and so poor parenting is transmitted from generation to generation, unless something happens to intervene and break the cycle. Parents who raise families in challenging circumstances sometimes have little energy to spend on things other than surviving. Their inner energy and resources are low and depression in mothers is more common than in more affluent areas. Such parents view their children as a liability and they take little pleasure in playing with them or spending quality time with them. They find it hard to respond to their children’s physical and emotional needs and to build trusting relationships with them. The result is that the basic needs of these children, for example to belong, to trust people, to feel worthy and special and to develop empathy with others, are not met.

Lack of stimulation  

Many studies confirm that stimulation of children by parents plays a vital role in the development of different domains of school readiness. Researchers have also found that poverty is associated with less cognitive stimulating environments. Children do not have access to books and age-appropriate toys. There is a lack of resources and opportunities for early development in the home and the community, with the result that they are not exposed to a variety of experiences, such as visiting museums or going on holiday. There is also sometimes little meaningful communication in the home. Children come into school and they do not know who lives in a zoo, how to bake cookies or what a vacation is. Young (3) researched the effect of poverty on children’s intellectual ability and he poignantly describes the backlog that children from deprived circumstances have when they are expected to have knowledge of things that they have never encountered: ‘That which a child has not touched, tasted, seen, heard, learned, or experienced, he simply does not know, whatever his intellectual potential.’ In contrast to children from a literacy-rich home environment, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are likely to start school with a lack of access to books and without adequate knowledge of books or how they work. Such children may enter school without ever having encountered a book. They cannot imagine the value of books and reading. These children are slower in learning to read than other children, and this could have a detrimental effect on their school progress and their future life.

Research done in the USA estimates that the typical middle-class child enters first grade having experienced 1 ,000 — 1 ,700 hours of one-on-one picture book reading, whereas a child from a low-income family averages just 25 hours (4). Another interesting study found that young children whose parents read them five books a day enter kindergarten having heard about 1.4 million more words than kids who were never read to. This ‘million-word gap’ could be one key in explaining differences in vocabulary and reading development in children from different socio-economic backgrounds (5).

Parenting styles   

Another way in which poverty could affect school performance is the way that it influences parenting style. Three parenting styles were formulated by the psychologist Baumrind and a fourth style was later added by another specialist (6). They are the following:

Authoritative style, where parents combine warm, supportive parenting with strict discipline and a democratic approach. This is considered to be the most beneficial style for children;

Authoritarian style, which is high in discipline and obedience, but with little or no love and affection, and often harsh punishment. Children raised by authoritarian parents display low self-esteem, little initiative and independence, and high anxiety levels in unfamiliar situations. This parenting style could also lead to underdeveloped morality. Such parents exercise harsh discipline and demand instant unquestioning obedience from their children;

Permissive style, where parents are loving but non-controlling and undemanding. They leave their children alone practically to fend for themselves and exercise little or no control over their behaviour and choices. The children are not taught discipline and good manners and the parents will seldom set limits. Apart from caring for the children and playing with them occasionally, they are not much involved in the children’s lives. The children of permissive parents are typically impulsive, inconsiderate and exhibit a lack of self-control. They have little regard for rules and cannot work systematically and with dedication to achieve long-term goals, but they pursue instant gratification;

Neglectful or uninvolved style, where parenting is characterised by an omission by the parents to fulfil any of their children’s physical and emotional needs and which has been found to be the most damaging for children. These children perceive that other aspects in their parents’ lives are more important than they are. They frequently display low self-esteem, poor social skills, lack of self-control, and tend to become delinquent and truant when they become adolescents.

During the author’s research in low-income communities, she found that many parents exercised either authoritative parenting, or they were permissive to the point of neglecting their children. Some of the parents who exercised harsh discipline believed that they had to instil fear in their children to protect them from the dangers in the community. They often saw that this kind of discipline did not work, but they did not know of a workable alternative. This kind of parenting evoked much anger and feelings of powerlessness in children and caused them to become rebellious and defiant, also in school. In the case of permissive/neglectful parents, the children could come and go as they pleased without proper supervision. From a young age, they were allowed to be absent from home without the parents knowing where they were, with the result that they often became involved in harmful activities or crime. There was often no routine in the home, no fixed mealtimes and bedtimes. Children were allowed to watch television with the parents until they fell asleep and they were consequently often exposed to inappropriate program content. This made it hard for the children to fit into a classroom routine, obey the educators’ instructions and exercise self-discipline and perseverance in school.

Lack of partnership between school and parents

What is evident in low-income communities is the lack of co-operation and partnership between parents and the school. Many parents do not attend meetings or parent evenings. Some parents have no idea what the school system requires of them and their children. They do not attach much value to education because they themselves are illiterate and have never experienced the benefits of education. Consequently, they do not convey the importance of attending school and doing homework to their children. It is common for children in low-income communities to go home after school, undress and eat something, and then disappear into the community for the rest of the afternoon. No homework or studying is done. These children are not supported and encouraged to believe in themselves and they have no-one to turn to for support in doing their homework or assignments.

Another reason why many impoverished parents fail to co-operate with schools could be because they have a deep-seated distrust of authority figures, whom they regard as punitive and unsympathetic. They may have had unpleasant prior encounters with authority figures such as the police or the municipal authorities, or during their own early experience with school. The reception at schools is also not always welcoming and parents still fear or resent educators who, they feel, look down on them. Many parents are unaware of the immensely important role that they play as partners in their children’s education and there is little opportunity for them to discover that they are mistaken.  

What is the solution?

The enormity of the situation seems overwhelming and could cause one to feel helpless. However, there are several things that could be done and if many people do something, it will make a difference. The Word of God makes it clear that poor people are close to His heart, and He promises that they will be rich in faith and inherit the kingdom which He promises to those who love Him (James 2:5). What is our role? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Pray! Nothing is impossible for God and He can do far more than we could think or dream.
  • Make a difference where you are, even if you only touch the life of one child. Pray that the Holy Spirit will show you where He wants to use you as His instrument.
  • Become involved in a project such as Shiloh, where children are fed nutritious meals and the ‘Back-to-school’-project rakes children off the street and puts them back in school. If you cannot be a volunteer, pray for Shiloh or support financially.
  • On a macro level, there needs to be the political will to tackle the situation. To change the socio-economic situation of people in low-income communities should be the final target. In the interim, policies should be put in place and funds made available to implement many, many programs at ground level in communities where it is needed, creating awareness and reaching parents who could benefit from parenting classes and practical and emotional support. These programs should be in neutral venues accessible to ordinary community members, such as libraries or clinics. An incentive could be used to draw reluctant parents.

“What is the use, my brethren, for anyone to profess to have faith if he has no good works to show for it? Can such faith save his soul? If a brother or sister is poorly clad and lacks food for each day, and one of you says to him, ‘Good-bye, keep yourself warm and well fed’, without giving him the necessities for the body, what good does that do?  So also faith, if it does not have works, by itself is destitute of power. (James 2:14-17.)

Resource list

  1. Spaull, N. 2015. Schooling in South Africa: How low-quality education becomes a poverty trap. In: De Lannoy A, Swartz S, Lake L & Smith C (eds) (2015) South African Child Gauge 2015. Cape Town: Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town, 34-41.
  2. Naudeau, S., Martinez,S., Premand,P. & Filmer, D. 2011. Cognitive development among young children in low-income countries. In: Aldeman, H. 2011. No small matter: the impact of poverty, shocks, and human capital investments in early childhood development. The World Bank, Washington, D.C.
  3. Young, W.M. 2015. Poverty, Intelligence and life in the inner city. Intellectual and developmental disabilities, 53(6):418–425.
  4. Whitehurst, G.J. & Lonigan, C.J. 1998. Child development and emergent literacy. Child development, 69(3):848-872.
  6. Martorell, G.A., Pappalia, D.A. & Feldman, R.D. 2014. A Child’s World; Infancy through Adolescence. McGraw-Hill, New York.


Dr. Jeanne Brown
Social Worker