For the first time in recent history, a majority of students in U.S. public schools are low-income, according to an analysis of federal data by the Southern Education Foundation released Friday.
In 2013, 51 percent of public school students qualified for free and reduced-price meals, a common indicator of poverty in education, according to the most recent data from The National Center for Education Statistics.
It’s a continuation of a trend that’s been building for years and a “defining moment” for the U.S. education system, which must find ways to confront the barriers poverty creates for academic achievement in order to thrive, the analysis says.
“No longer can we consider the problems and needs of low income students simply a matter of fairness,” the report said, quoting from a previous analysis. “Their success or failure in the public schools will determine the entire body of human capital and educational potential that the nation will possess in the future.”
In 1989, fewer than 32 percent of students were low-income using the report’s definition. By 2000, the rate climbed to 38 percent. But the organization, which has tracked the pattern for years, is sounding the alarm now that poor students are in the majority.
“The pattern was spread across the nation,” the analysis says. “Half or more of the public schoolchildren in 21 states were eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches, a benefit available only to families living in poverty or near-poverty in 2013. In 19 other states, low income students constituted between 40 percent and 49 percent of the states’ public school enrollment. In other words, very high proportions of low income students were evident in four-fifths of the 50 states in 2013.”
Mississippi had the highest concentration of low-income students at 71 percent.
Students are eligible for free meals if they live in households with no more than 135 percent of the poverty level, and they qualify for reduced-price meals if household income is no more than 185 percent of the poverty level. In 2013, the federal poverty threshold was $23,550 for a family of four.
What does this mean for schools?
Schools have, of course, been confronted by the challenges of poverty for years, but crossing the majority threshold certainly creates a powerful conversation point in debates on the local, state, and federal levels about issues ranging from equity and accountability to student supports.
“That deepening poverty likely will complicate already fraught political discussions on how to educate American students, as prior research has shown students are significantly more at risk academically in schools with 40 percent or higher concentrations of poverty,” Education Week wrote when it covered growing trends of poverty in 2013.
And, as Rules for Engagement previously reported, poor families are increasingly moving into the suburbs and living in areas with high concentrations of poverty, creating dimensions to the debate.
The new majority of low-income students is yet another new reality for American educators. U.S. schools hit another major milestone this year, when the U.S. Department of Education projected that a majority of students would be from racial and ethnic minority populations.
An Unequal Playing Field?
While poverty is challenging schools everywhere, some schools have fewer resources to address it.
Education Week explored these trends as part of its War on Poverty coverage, which included this page of interactive graphics on school finances, last year.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.