How does education affect poverty? It can help end it.

April 17, 2022
Written by Olivia Giovetti
Photo by Kieran McConville

Access to high-quality primary education and supporting child well-being is a globally-recognized solution to the cycle of poverty. This is, in part, because it also addresses many of the other issues can keep communities vulnerable.

We know that poverty affects education. Not every person without an education lives in extreme poverty. But most adults living in poverty today missed out on a basic education. Their children are also more likely to miss out as well. This is a travesty, because the main way that education affects poverty is that it can help to end it. 

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How does education affect poverty?

Education is often referred to as the great equalizer: It can open the door to jobs, resources, and skills that help a person not only survive, but thrive. This is why access to quality education is a globally-recognized solution to poverty. Education helps to remedy many of the other issues that can keep people, families, and even whole communities vulnerable to the cycle of poverty

At its core, a quality education supports a child’s developing social, emotional, cognitive, and communication skills. They also gain knowledge and skills, and often at a higher level than those who don’t attend school. They can then use these skills to earn higher incomes and build successful lives.

According to UNESCO, if all students in low-income countries had just basic reading skills (nothing else), an estimated 171 million people could escape extreme poverty. If all adults completed secondary education, we could cut the global poverty rate by more than half. This is why the United Nations named quality education one of its Sustainable Development Goals to achieve by 2030.  

Here are 7 of the ways that education affects poverty. 

1. Education is linked with economic growth

Education is the best way out of poverty in part because it is strongly linked to economic growth. A 2021 study co-published by Stanford University and Munich’s Ludwig Maximilian University shows us that, between 1960 and 2000, 75% of the growth in gross domestic product around the world was linked to increased math and science skills. “The relationship between aggregate cognitive skills, called the knowledge capital of a nation, and the long-run growth rate is extraordinarily strong,” the study’s authors conclude. This is just one of the most recent studies linking education and economic growth that have been published since 1990. 

Issoufou (7) attending school in the village Toungaïlli, Niger. (Photo: Ollivier Girard/Concern Worldwide)

2. Universal quality education for all fights inequality

A 2019 Oxfam report says it best: “Good-quality education can be liberating for individuals, and it can act as a leveler and equalizer within society.” 

One of the main causes of poverty is inequality. All types of systemic barriers (including physical ability, religion, race, and caste) serve as compound interest against a marginalization that already accrues most for those living in extreme poverty. Education is a basic human right for all, and — when tailored to the unique needs of marginalized communities — can be used as a lever against some of the systemic barriers that keep certain groups of people furthest behind. 

For example, one of the biggest inequalities that fuels the cycle of poverty is gender. When gender inequality in the classroom is addressed, this has a ripple effect on the way women are treated in their communities. We’ve seen this at work in Afghanistan, where Concern developed a Community-Based Education program. This allows students in rural areas to attend classes closer to home, which is especially helpful for girls. 

3. Education is linked to lower maternal and infant mortality rates

Speaking of women, education also means healthier mothers and children. In examining 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, researchers from the World Bank and International Center for Research on Women found that educated women tend to have fewer children and have them later in life. This generally leads to better outcomes for both the mother and her kids, with safer pregnancies and healthier newborns. The proof of this correlation has been seen in Peru. A 2017 report shows that the country’s maternal mortality rate had declined by more than 70% in the last 25 years, approximately the same amount of time that an amendment to compulsory schooling laws took place in 1993. Ensuring that girls had more education reduced the likelihood of maternal health complications, in some cases by as much as 29%. 

Safiatu and her baby in Tonkolili, Sierra Leone

Rates of teen pregnancy are high in the Tonkolili district of Sierra Leone. Concern is working with schools to educate young men and women about sexual and reproductive health. The program also teaches critical thinking and encourages students to carefully consider their options. (Photo: Kieran McConville)

4. Education also lowers stunting rates

Children also benefit from more educated mothers, as several reports linking education to lowered stunting rates have shown. One of the side effects of malnutrition, stunting is linked to several developmental issues for children whose height — and potential — are cut short by not having enough nutrients in their first few years. In Bangladesh, one study showed a 50.7% prevalence for stunting among families. However, greater maternal education rates led to a 4.6% decrease in the odds of stunting; greater paternal education reduced those rates by 2.9%-5.4%.  A similar study in Nairobi, Kenya confirmed this relationship: Children born to mothers with some secondary education are 29% less likely to be stunted. 

These statistics offer future rewards: Children who are not stunted in life go on to earn 22% more as adults than their stunted counterparts. They’re also more likely to have healthier children themselves. 

5. Education reduces vulnerability to HIV and AIDS…

In 2008, researchers from Harvard University, Imperial College London, and the World Bank wrote: “There is a growing body of evidence that keeping girls in school reduces their risk of contracting HIV. The relationship between educational attainment and HIV has changed over time, with educational attainment now more likely to be associated with a lower risk of HIV infection than earlier in the epidemic.” Since then, that correlation has only grown stronger. The right programs in schools not only reduce the likelihood of young people contracting HIV or AIDS, but also reduce the stigmas held against people living with HIV and AIDS. 

Refugee children at school in Lebanon

Concern Worldwide education officer, Nour Al Hajal, with a group of children attending a non-formal education program that focuses on early childhood education in northern Lebanon.

6. …and vulnerability to natural disasters and climate change

As the number of extreme weather events increases due to climate change, education plays a critical role in reducing vulnerability and risk to these events. A 2014 issue of the journal Ecology and Society states: “It is found that highly educated individuals are better aware of the earthquake risk … and are more likely to undertake disaster preparedness.… High risk awareness associated with education thus could contribute to vulnerability reduction behaviors.” The authors of the article go on to add that educated people living through a natural disaster often have more of a financial safety net to offset losses, access to more sources of information to prepare for a disaster, and have a wider social network for mutual support. 

Botu Ali studies at her desk in Kalacha, Kenya.

Botu Ali, a student at the Maikona Girls Secondary School. Her after school programs helped Botu realize she could object to the traditional yet harmful practice of FGM. (Photo: Ben Rosser/Concern Worldwide)

7. Education reduces violence at home and in communities

The same World Bank and ICRW report that showed the connection between education and maternal health also reveals that each additional year of secondary education reduced the chances of child marriage — defined as being married before the age of 18. Because educated women tend to marry later and have fewer children later in life, they’re also less likely to suffer gender-based violence, especially from their intimate partner. Girls who receive a full education are more likely to understand the harmful aspects of traditional practices like FGM, as well as their rights and how to stand up for them, at home and within their community. 

Education for all: Concern’s approach

Concern’s work is grounded in the belief that all children have a right to a quality education. Last year, our work to promote education for all reached over 694,000 children. Over half of those students were female. 

We integrate our education programs into both our development and emergency work to give children living in extreme poverty more opportunities in life and supporting their overall well-being. Concern has brought quality education to villages that are off the grid, engaged local community leaders to find solutions to keep girls in school, and provided mentorship and training for teachers.

How Education Affects Poverty