How Many American Schoolkids are Poor? Way Fewer Than the Washington Post Told You.

February 9, 2015 at 11:28 pm Leave a comment

It was one of those “now, wait a minute” kind of headlines: “Majority of U.S. Public School Students are in Poverty.”

The January 16 Washington Post article by Lyndsey Layton brought needed attention to a remarkable bit of education data: for the first time ever, over half of American public school students are now receiving free or reduced-price lunch.

“The shift to a majority-poor student population,” Layton writes, “means that in public schools, a growing number of children start kindergarten already trailing their more privileged peers and rarely, if ever, catch up. They are less likely to have support at home, are less frequently exposed to enriching activities outside of school, and are more likely to drop out and never attend college.”

The problem is, it’s not true that most American public school children are poor. Free and reduced-price lunch eligibility is a frequently-used proxy for poverty in schools. But it’s not poverty.


According to Census, it’s more like 2 out of 10.

Education data might not offer actual poverty rates, but some Census data can estimate it. According to the American Community Survey, the poverty rate among public school students isn’t half. It’s about two in ten.

A family of four can qualify for free school lunch with an income that’s 130 percent of the poverty level—that’s $31,000 per year. A family of four can get reduced-price lunches at 185 percent of the poverty level, or $44,000. That means that in America’s poorest state, Mississippi, a family of four can make as much as 77 percent of the state median income—in other words, be nearly average earners there—and still qualify for reduced-price school lunches.

About nine out of ten of American school-aged children attend public schools, so this story’s headline likely scared parents across the economic spectrum. But this story doesn’t hit everyone equally. You don’t see 51 percent lunch subsidy rates in every single school. An essential part of the story is which students are in schools with lots of free lunches, and which students are in schools with little need for lunch assistance.

Who’s going to school where?

Take a look at Maryland. It has the highest median household income in the country for a family of four: $107,000. Yet nearly half of Maryland public school students qualify for school lunch subsidies. Why? Because…well, Baltimore. In Baltimore public schools, 84 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals.

To what extent are lunch subsidies concentrated in some schools but not in others? In 2012, 44 percent of U.S. public school students attended schools where more than half of students were eligible for lunch assistance. That’s a jump from 28 percent in 2000. During that same time period, the percentage of students attending so-called “low poverty” schools (less than a quarter of students eligible for lunch subsidies) dropped from 45 to 24 percent.

The story of concentrated affluence and concentrated poverty becomes more remarkable when you introduce race. Almost a third of white public school students attended low poverty schools in 2012. Only eight percent of black students and 17 percent of Hispanic students did. The racial inequity is more pronounced when you look at schools where more than half of students received lunch assistance. Only 32 percent of white public school students attended these schools. That rate jumps to 55 percent for Hispanic students and 72 percent for black students.

The Wrong Takeaway

A story about increasing poverty in public schools is perfectly warranted. The 22.3 percent of public school students that Census estimates are truly living in poverty is a steady climb from 17.3 percent in 2000. And Layton’s angle is important: while half of American public school children may not be poor, half are poor enough to need help getting a meal five times a week. That has with major consequences for the way we educate our children. It’s worth every one of the 1,300 words Layton wrote.


A White House office runs with the inaccurate headline.

Layton does note that lunch subsidies are a “proxy” for poverty, and she mostly refers to “low-income” families, which is more accurate than “poor.” But if you just got a glimpse of this story on Facebook or Twitter, all you got was the takeaway: 50 percent of public school kids are poor. That takeaway was inaccurate. In an age where people get their news from social media feeds, headlines are more important than ever. Three weeks after Layton’s story was published, the headline remained, despite scattered criticism on Twitter.

One way to look at this is as a mere quibble—the Washington Post simply took one more step than was warranted in interpreting some data, something that can happen easily in a headline. The other way to look at it is more alarming: a headline like this sailing right past Washington Post editors could mean that they don’t understand the extent of child poverty in America—not by a long shot.

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