Poverty affects education in a myriad of ways, for reasons individual and societal. Let's look at a few of each.
At the individual level, a learner who comes from a background of poverty has decided disadvantages. This is a student who is more likely to experience food and housing insecurities. We cannot learn properly when we are hungry. Nor can we find a spot to do homework while living in a shelter or a car. And these, sadly, are situations in which poor students find themselves. Children from impoverished families are also often lacking in parental support, not because parents do not want to provide support, but because they are working too hard and are too stressed, just to provide even the basics. Children from impoverished families usually lack the amenities that their more comfortable schoolmates have access to, such as summer camps, music lessons, museums, and science centers. These place poor children behind, since this sort of informal learning is so powerful and important. Research shows that poor students have smaller vocabularies than their schoolmates. Some of this is no doubt because poorer parents have less time to talk to their children, but also because the parenting styles are often different, with less emphasis placed on informal conversation in the household, a more authoritative "Children are to be seen and not heard" style. I would also guess that in poorer households parents do not spend much time reading to their children, because of a lack of time and energy and a lack of knowledge of the importance of this, not just for vocabulary development, but for emotional and cognitive development generally. Thus, the poor student begins school at a considerable disadvantage that he or she endures throughout.
At a societal level, the effects of poverty are at least as dismaying. Funding for school comes from federal, state, and local coffers, with the largest proportion provided by the local level. In a school district that is poor, this means there is not enough money for the physical plants, the schools, to be properly cared for, there is not enough money for teaching and support staff, there is not enough money for textbooks and supplies, and there is not enough money for a well-rounded curriculum, which should include art, music, and physical education. Poor students typically have worn or outdated textbooks, to the degree they have textbooks at all. The classrooms are often crowded. Handouts are fewer because the budget for paper usually has run out well before the school year is over. School nurses and counselors might be at a given school once or twice a week, if there are any school nurses or counselors. At a larger societal level, the implications of this are staggering, since we are trying to educate children who are in no position to learn, students who have little or no access to the tools of education because of the poverty of their communities. This used to be thought of as solely an urban problem, but it is becoming increasingly clear that suburban and rural school districts can be impoverished, too. All of society does and will bear the burden of these effects, with increasing crime rates, higher rates of incarceration, increasing poverty, poor health, lower consumption, and fewer tax dollars.
This upcoming generation of poor students, I fear, is a generation that is educationally lost. We seem to be lacking in the societal and political will necessary to properly educate all students from all parts of society. A proper education is not one that simply prepares one for a job, but one that molds a student into a well-rounded, empathetic, and thoughtful person who is able to be an effective participant in a democracy.