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HOME: STATE OF WORLD POPULATION 2002: Poverty and Education
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Poverty and Education

Wealth Differentials in Access and Attainment
The Gender Gap
Returns on Education Investments for the Poor
Meeting the Goals of the ICPD

Wealth Differentials in Access and Attainment

There are wealth differences in school enrolment and attainment in virtually all developing countries, but the gaps wary widely across countries. Children aged 6-14 from the wealthiest 20 per cent of households are substantially more likely to be enrolled in school than children from the poorest 40 per cent of households in almost all countries.

The differences between rich and poor are particularly large (more than 45 percentage points) in several West African countries -Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal-and in Morocco and Pakistan. In contrast, small differences are seen in Kenya, Malawi, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.

Measures of school attainment also demonstrate wealth gaps that vary across countries. For example, in India the gap (in this case in the median number of years of schooling attained among 15-to-19-year-olds) between the richest 20 per cent and poorest 40 per cent is 10 years, whereas in Tanzania it is only two years (2). In many countries, most children from the poorest households have no schooling. A recent study of 35 countries in West and Central Africa and in South Asia showed that, in 10 countries, half or more of 15-19 year olds from poor households never completed grade one (3).

There is longstanding international agreement that primary education should be universal by early in the 21st century. The gaps in educational attendance and attainment according to wealth imply that the poor are much farther away from achieving this goal than others.

Many countries would reach the goal by raising enrolment among the poor. For example, in Colombia, Peru and the Philippines, over 70 per cent of the shortfall in universal primary education is attributable to poor children (4). There are only a few developing countries in which the rich have not already achieved universal primary education (see Figure 11).

Figure 11: Wealth disparities in school enviroment
Per cent of children aged 6-14 enrolled in school in poorest and richest 20 per cent of households, selected countries

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REASONS FOR THE GAP Why are enrolment rates lower and educational outcomes worse among the poor? Both supply and demand are at work. First, it is harder for poor children to reach a school. Schools tend to be concentrated in cities and areas where wealthier households reside. For example, in Guinea, the average travel time to the nearest primary school is 47 minutes in rural areas but only 19 minutes in urban areas (5).

But the physical availability of schools is not the central issue in most countries (6). Expenditures on education have increased over the last few decades in many places, but increases in spending without special attention to the needs of the poor can reinforce wealth disparities rather than reduce them.

The evidence from a range of developing countries suggests that a larger percentage of public spending on education goes to government actions that benefit the wealthy (7). In Latin America, attainment disparities have been attributed to ineffective public school systems, upon which the poor depend, and a relatively low proportion of spending on primary and secondary education, the type of schooling that tends to benefit the poor most (8). Even when governments direct sufficient resources to improving access to and quality of education among the poor, they may lack the administrative capacity to deliver services.

Crises such as war, civil conflict, economic collapse and epidemics disrupt services and hold back school attendance. In the former Yugoslavia and Central Asia, enrolment rates for basic education were far lower at the end of the 1990s than at the beginning. These problems are likely to have a greater effect on the poor than the non-poor (9).

The quality of schooling-including curricula, textbooks, teaching methods, teacher training, pupil-teacher ratios and parental participation-helps determine educational outcomes, including school retention, attainment levels and test scores (10). For example, recent research in South Africa shows that pupilteacher ratio has a significant effect on the number of years of completed education (11). In Egypt, dropout rates are related to a variety of elements of school quality and the learning environment. Boys and girls respond to different elements of the school environment (12).

In some countries, declining fertility is reducing the pressure on public school systems, providing an opportunity to increase quality without necessarily increasing expenditures.


Bangladesh's Food for Education Programme is a government initiative addressing household food insecurity and low female education among the poorest families. Launched in 1993, the programme covers about 5,000 primary schools all over the country. It supplies a food ration (wheat) replacing children's contribution to family livelihood and releasing them to go to school.

Attendance has increased for both boys and girls, but about 10-15 per cent more for girls. Besides the effect of education on empowerment, there is some evidence that it has led to delayed marriage, with important implications for women's life opportunities.

DEMAND AND EXPECTED BENEFITS Demand for education depends on perceived returns to the family, mainly anticipated income for educated children (but also better health and lower fertility) (13). One study estimates that, when opportunities are available for educated workers, earnings can increase on average by 10 per cent for each additional year of schooling (14).

In some countries, the expected return from education is lower for a variety of reasons, lowering the demand for education among the poor. In Latin America, these factors include the cost of education, the low quality of public schooling, and discrimination against some ethnic or linguistic groups and against women in the labour market (15).

In contrast, returns to education in East Asia and in some countries in South Asia have remained high because of investments in physical capital, improvements in technology, and pro-export and other beneficial trade policies, as well as support for education handed down within families (16).

Programmes that reduce the cost of education for the poor can raise demand. For example, the PROGRESA programme in Mexico, which provides subsidies to poor families contingent on their children's regular attendance at school, has reduced dropout rates and improved grade progression (17).

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