Education is the key to break the cycle of poverty. This key is broken for rural United States. In the past ten years, early education policies have been on the rise to combat child poverty. However, children suffering from rural child poverty have not been reaping the same benefits as children suffering in urban poverty. The difference between urban and rural poverty areas is seen in the accessibility, affordability and quality of early education in the rural southern United States.
Based on human development research, the environment in the early years of childhood highly affects later educational attainment. When environments offer experiences that are responsive and supportive, children thrive. When young children are exposed to toxic stress—defined as severe, uncontrollable chronic adversity—it can undermine development and learning and have lasting effects on behavior and development. Often, low-quality home environments are linked to areas of poverty. Therefore, highly effective early education is extremely important for success in child development, especially when students come from low-quality home environments.
Only forty percent of three and four-year-old children that live in households making less than $20,000 attend preschool in the U.S. With the South’s rural poverty rate of 22.1 percent, nearly seven percentage points higher than in the region’s urban areas, rural children are more likely to be poor than children in urban areas and more likely to be living in deep poverty. Children from low-income families are at greater risk of hunger, abuse and neglect. They are also at greater risk of being exposed to little or no quality childcare and early education programs. Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina have greater than seventy percent of rural, low-income students living in concentrated poverty districts. Mississippi has nearly one hundred percent of its low-income students living in such districts.
Currently, rural communities lack choice in early education options. Licensed childcare facilities are few. The Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG) is the primary federal grant program that provides childcare assistance for families and funds childcare quality initiatives. Nearly one in five children who receive CCDBG assistance is in unlicensed care. Unlicensed care is not subject to regular inspections, and research has shown that unlicensed care is typically lower quality.
Affordability is a vast problem in the realm of rural early education. On average, childcare accounts for a large amount of a family’s budget. For example, monthly childcare costs for a two-parent, one-child household start at $334 in rural Mississippi. This averages out to around $4,000 a year for childcare, averaging one-fifth of the average three-person household’s below poverty line income.
In preparing students to be career and college ready, teachers need to teach global competence to students starting in the formative early years. However, rural areas often lack technology access, a vital component to 21 century skills. The rural south has seen a recent rise in minorities. In the rural areas of Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas, more than a third of students are students of color. While the majority is African American, there has been a recent rise in Hispanic students. The increasing diversity among rural students and families requires both language and cultural competencies not generally found among rural early care providers and educators.
Another issue is the quality of the teachers. While this is a problem in all realms of education, low wages in early education make the cost of a higher degree a bad economic investment. For rural communities, members in the community cannot afford the attainment of a higher degree and rather strive for lower requirements in home-based care. Rural areas also have difficulty implementing professional development. As distance between schools is farther, teacher professional development is difficult to implement.
Children coming from low-income backgrounds often need more support, which creates a need for more funding. However, high poverty rural districts do not receive any substantial additional funding. For example, the rural instructional spending per pupil in Mississippi is $4,168. In districts with concentrated poverty, there is only a three-dollar increase in funding per pupil.
Overall, children in rural poverty need early education innovative policies. The distance between schools, lack of available quality teachers and lack of resources are major issues needing attention. All children need access to great, affordable education.