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

August 27, 2019
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.

Like a tree, poverty has many roots. But among the many causes of global poverty, one factor stands out: education. Not every person without an education is living in extreme poverty, but most of the extremely poor do lack a basic education. Those living below the poverty line will also be more likely to keep their children out of school, which means that their children will also have a greater chance of living in poverty. 

Education is often referred to as the great equalizer: It can open the door to jobs, resources, and skills that a family needs to not just survive, but thrive. 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. Let’s look at 3 ways education is the secret ingredient to ending extreme poverty, as well as a few facts around the value of an education. 

The impact of education on poverty: Facts

Education is directly related to many solutions to poverty, including: 

  • Economic growth
  • Reduced income inequality
  • Reduced infant and maternal deaths
  • Reduced stunting
  • Reduced vulnerability to HIV and AIDS
  • Reduced violence at home and in society

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. 

3 ways that education affects poverty

The above points are some of the reasons that the United Nations named education its fourth Sustainable Development Goal. Let’s put this into context: Here are 3 ways that education affects poverty. 

1. Education develops skills and abilities

A quality education system supports a child’s developing social, emotional, cognitive and communication skills. Education programs also support the development of knowledge and abilities (i.e., human assets). Children who receive quality primary education are more likely to develop these assets at a higher level than those who don’t. They can then use these abilities and skills to earn higher incomes or further develop other basic assets. 

Participants of the Kinyango Community Conversation, Dandora IV, are a group of active citizens who meet weekly to address issues of access to education within their community.

Participants of the Kinyango Community Conversation, Dandora IV, are a group of active citizens who meet weekly to address issues of access to education within their community. The sessions are facilitated by group leaders with support from Concern Kenya. Photo: Francis Mwangi / Concern Worldwide

2. Education can fight inequality

Before giving people more opportunities to participate in society, we need to address some specific obstacles to participation. Often the most vulnerable communities aren’t recognized as equals in their community. As a result, they lack representation, power, and status. But, at an individual level, education is a basic human right for all.  

One of the biggest inequalities that perpetuates 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. When girls are welcomed into the classroom, they can build skills, gain knowledge, and socially grow during their formative years. This establishes a foundation for lifelong learning. 

Girls in school in Afghanistan

One example of equality in education comes from Afghanistan. There, Concern developed a Community-Based Education program so students in rural areas can attend classes closer to home. CBE benefits all students who may otherwise live too far from a school, but it’s especially helpful for girls. 

3. Education can decrease risk and vulnerability

In many of the countries where we work, the lives and livelihoods of the extremely poor are often tied into conflict, epidemics, and natural disasters. These can act as “force multipliers,” or elements that increase the likelihood that poverty will continue for the poorest countries

But knowledge, as the old saying goes, is power. Besides reducing inequality, education can safeguard against vulnerability and risk. This also reduces inequality. The ongoing Syrian conflict, for example, threatens to leave millions of Syrian refugee children a lost generation. Those living in Turkey are also faced with the language barrier between Arabic and Turkish. Our work with Syrian refugees in this host community includes language education so that kids can then integrate into public schools. 

A young Syrian student practices his counting skills during a non-formal education session at an informal tented settlement in northern Lebanon. Photographer: Dalia Khamissy

In situations like war and epidemics, there are also psycho-social barriers to education. Many Syrian children living abroad are still processing the horrors of war. As a result, Concern’s work with Syria’s youngest refugees in Lebanon focuses on psycho-social support. Over time, helping kids to feel safe again will allow them to rebuild some of the social skills lost through trauma. They can then return to more academic-driven learning models.

Similarly, in Sierra Leone during the West African Ebola epidemic, many healthy children were quarantined for weeks at a time. This threatened their schooling as well as their social skills. Radio classrooms proved to be a valuable tool when we couldn’t bring children together in an actual school to give them a sense of connection and community as they continued their studies. (We’re now in the middle of a 5-year pilot program in Sierra Leone to provide a more inclusive and safe learning model.) 

In 2018, Concern’s work to promote education for all reached almost 350,000 children directly — and another 372,000 indirectly. Over 360,000 of those students were female. 

Education for all

The right type of education is one of the best conflict strategies available to any society. In 2018, Concern’s work to promote education for all reached almost 350,000 children directly — and another 372,000 indirectly. Over 360,000 of those students were female. 

Last year in Kenya, our program “Let Our Girls Succeed” supported young women in Marsabit County to stay in school beyond the primary level. In Marsabit, 70% of the population is illiterate, and of those children who do attend primary school, only 39.5% go on to secondary school. Through a network of communities, we assisted 205 girls in 20 project schools, 86% of whom went on to secondary school or to a vocational training center. 

Photographer Alexi Lubomirski visits a girls school in Marsabit County, Kenya

Concern Ambassador Alexi Lubomirski visits the Maikona Girls Secondary School in Marsabit, Kenya. Photo: Kieran McConville

Since education is so connected to many of the ways we can end extreme poverty, it’s also an element that we integrate into a several areas of our work, including emergency response. A deteriorating humanitarian and security situation in neighboring Chad and Nigeria has left over 252,000 displaced people fleeing to Niger’s Diffa region. In response, we built 13 emergency classrooms and 17 separate boys’ and girls’ latrines. This led to quality education access for more than 7,230 children in 25 schools.