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With about 20 percent of children in Tokyo and other cities coming from severely impoverished households, Japan now takes its place beside the United States in sharing this shameful distinction. The designation has far-reaching implications for schools in both countries at a time when education is indispensable for upward mobility.

According to a survey commissioned by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and conducted by Aya Abe of Tokyo Metropolitan University, poverty is defined as families meeting two or three of the following criteria: an annual income of ¥1.35 million or less, falling behind on utility or rent payments, and an inability to pay for cram schools, books or toys for their children.

The survey found that 15 percent could not afford to buy clothes for their children and 10 percent were unable to adequately feed themselves. When children from these backgrounds go to school, their learning is unavoidably affected. It’s seen in the number of children who fall behind in their studies.

Although the U.S. measures childhood poverty differently, the effects are equally damaging to learning. Children are classified as poor when their families earn less than half the median income of others in the country. That means earning less than $26,000 annually. At last count, that amounted to 10.9 million children, or 21 percent of the total.

Childhood poverty rates are up for every racial group in the U.S. The rate was greatest in the South, where it has reached 23 percent, followed by the West at 21 percent. The Northeast posted the lowest rate at 18 percent.

The present measure of poverty was established in 1964 by a Social Security Administration economist named Mollie Orshansky. She found that a family of four spent on average one-third of its income on food. Thus, three times that amount became the official poverty line.

But the numbers in both countries can be misleading. For example, Japan and the U.S. exclude any income from government transfers, such as food stamps and other assistance. As a result, what is reported is more a measure of income inequality (a relative term) than of poverty (an absolute term).

In Japan, the amount of child support a single parent receives is based on the number of children and the parent’s income. As taxable income increases, the amount of the allowance decreases. The poverty rate is distorted by the record-high number of people receiving entitlement benefits. For a country with a population about a third of that in the U.S., the 2.2 million or so on welfare is significant.

No matter how childhood poverty is defined, what is undeniable is its effects on learning. Children who go to class without a good night’s sleep and a nourishing breakfast cannot possibly learn as much as their classmates. No amount of parsing the data can get around that reality. Even the best teachers are unable to fully overcome the deficits that these children bring to school through no fault of their own.

Recognizing the dire implications, California in 2014 implemented the most dramatic change in four decades in how public schools are funded. Under the plan, all schools are given an average base grant of $7,643 per student. An additional 20 percent is provided for each disadvantaged student, and on top of that, support is given to schools where at least 55 percent of students are low-income, learning English or in foster care.

Money alone spent in schools, however, can never fully compensate for the bleak conditions in the homes of children. That’s why Japan and the U.S. need to address factors in their countries that are responsible for the gross disparities in income.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the United States.

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