Race and Poverty

In this lesson, students will learn that race is a factor often connected to poverty and that institutions can create obstacles for the poor—and for people of color who live in poverty—that block participation and achievement.
Grade Level


Activities will help students:

  • understand the link between race and poverty
  • understand which barriers to success are personal and which are institutional
  • discuss the ways in which educational advantages make a difference in life
  • explore state and national participation in Advanced Placement classes
  • recommend changes to increase equitable access to and participation in such classes
Essential Questions
  • How, and to what extent, is race a factor in poverty?
  • How important is access to a quality education?
  • For people of color who live in poverty, what are the barriers to such access?
  • How can such access be broadened on a local basis?
  • Internet access
  • Access to completed work from Lesson 3: The Cycle of Poverty
  • Access to school administrators and data on Advanced Placement rates


This lesson is the fourth and final lesson of “Issues of Poverty.” Students explore the causes of poverty in the United States and the structural factors that perpetuate it. Students will examine the ways poverty is closely related to economic and political policy, and will work to discover why it disproportionately affects members of nondominant groups—that is, groups that historically have been oppressed.



Advanced Placement (add-vanst playsment) (adjective) accelerated courses in which high school students may qualify for college credit if they pass culminating tests 

institutionalized (in-stih-too-shun-uhl-eyzd) (adverb) having made something an established custom or an accepted part of the structure of a large organization or a society

tracking (tra-king) (verb) in this context, separating students by academic ability so that students attend classes and learn only with other students with similar academic achievements


Additional Resources



1. According to U.S. Census Bureau data (see p. 15), the poverty rate for white Americans in 2010 was 13.0 percent. But it was substantially higher for people of color—27.4 percent for blacks and 26.6 percent for Hispanics. Race, then, appears to be a factor that is often connected to poverty through a lifetime. As a class, review the other factors you learned about in Lesson 3—education, health, geography, and household and family structure—and the specific circumstances you listed within each that can lead to poverty. Discuss the following:

  • Which of the circumstances you identified are more likely to affect nondominant groups—that is, groups that have historically been oppressed?
  • What might make it difficult for nondominant groups to move beyond these circumstances?
  • Which of these circumstances are within the control of individuals? Which of them are       examples of institutionalized barriers to success? 

2. Aside from family, local school districts are the most important factor in helping to determine students’ future success. As a class, brainstorm the ways an educational institution provides opportunities for students’ success. Have a member of the class or the teacher list ideas where people can see them. (Note: outstanding teachers, challenging and engaging curriculum, tutoring and other supplemental aid, access to technology, communication with family members, preparation and planning for college.) Individually, write a journal entry that answers these questions: Do you have the educational advantages from the list your class came up with? If so, how long have you had them? Without them, what chances do you think a student has of succeeding in school and beyond?

3. You’ve now thought about some of the opportunities schools can provide to help ensure student success. For this part of the lesson, you’re going to focus on one specific element at high schools that often correlates to success: Advanced Placement classes. They aren’t the only mark of educational achievement, but the offering of high school Advanced Placement classes is usually an indicator of a distinctive school. By looking at the latest College Board “report to the nation,” you will explore how accessible and how effective AP classes are—depending on poverty factors such as geography and race.

Divide into four groups, with each group choosing one of the following areas to explore. You will find information, charts and graphs for each area in the AP Report to the Nation.

  • AP access, preparation for and participation by state
  • AP participant demographics, including race, gender and low income
  • AP participation by race, relative to the specific population
  • AP participation by students living in homes with a low income, relative to the specific population

Within your groups, gather information to share with the class. Before you share, make sure that you can identify and list the key findings from your research, so you can explain them to your classmates. Include any information that surprises you or runs counter to your previous assumptions. As a class, discuss the findings. What did you discover about the equity of educational advantages? 

4. How does your school—or school district—compare to your findings? Within your groups, use the expertise of school administrators and other resources to find out the following:

Group 1: What percentage of students took AP classes at the school last year? What percentage of them were students of color? How do those numbers break down in terms of specific race or ethnicity?

Group 2: What percentage of students living in homes with a low income took AP classes last year? How do those numbers break down in terms of specific race or ethnicity?

Group 3: What process is used to fill AP classes (long-term tracking of students, counselor recommendations, communication with families, recruitment nights)?

Group 4: What plan does the school have to expand participation in AP classes? Does the plan specifically address including students of color? Does it specifically address the needs of students who live in homes with a low income?

Once your group has gathered its information, share it with the class in an oral report, PowerPoint presentation or interactive page on a classroom website. As a class, discuss how your school has provided access and preparation for classes that could determine students’ future success. 

5. Based on your findings, what would you recommend that your school do differently to assure access to AP classes and other advantages, regardless of students’ personal resources? Share your recommendations in an editorial for the campus newspaper, a letter to the AP adviser or a presentation to the district school board.


Common Core State Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies: CCSS: RH.9-10.1, RH.9-10.2, RH.9-10.4, RH.9-10.7, RH.11-12.7, RH.11-12.9, Gr.11-12.9