Equity & Diversity

Poor Children Are Now a Majority in 17 States’ Public Schools

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 22, 2013 3 min read
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Nearly half of all American public school students now live in poverty, and in broad swaths of the South and Southwest, state supports have not kept pace with significant and rapidly rising majorities of poor students in classrooms, a new report finds.

In 17 states spanning nearly all of the South, Southwest, and West Coast, a majority of public school students qualified for free or reduced-price meals in 2011, according to the analysis released last week by the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation.

That’s up from four states in 2000, and the study found all states have seen a rapid rise in student poverty during the last decade. Thirty-six states now have statewide poverty rates of more than 40 percent in schools. Mississippi’s rate now tops 70 percent.

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.

“Once you get above a majority of students in poverty, it becomes increasingly difficult to deal with the problems they’ve got, and increasingly those problems come to define the direction of the whole school,” said Steve T. Suitts, the vice president of the foundation and the author of the study.

Urban areas in every part of the country now have majorities of students in poverty, from 54 percent in Western cities to 71 percent in the Northeast. But nationwide, two out of five students in the suburbs also are poor. In the South and West, the share is closer to half.

‘No Place to Get Away’

Mr. Suitts said he found it “stunning” that three out of every four districts in 15 states across the southern half of the country now have at least 50 percent of their students living in poverty—and often much more. “That pretty well means there’s no place you can get away” from concentrated poverty, Mr. Suitts said.

While the recent Great Recession added to family hardships, Mr. Suitts said the rise in poverty is multidimensional.

The states hardest hit by poverty have also seen the fastest population growth, due in part but not entirely from immigration. While low-income families are no bigger than they were historically, the overall population has greyed and higher-income parents have been having fewer children now compared to decades past, the report found. That’s led to a higher proportion of schoolchildren in poverty.

Exception to the Trend

For example, Mr. Suitts pointed to Arizona, the only state in the Southwest with a poverty rate under half, at 45.5 percent. While the state has immigrant and American Indian students—both of whom historically have had higher rates of poverty—it has relatively few students overall compared with its large senior retired population, serving to keep the poverty rate lower.

Natasha Ushomirsky, a senior policy and data analyst at the Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for educational equity, said she wasn’t surprised by the sharp increase in poverty, and said neither education policy nor government supports have dealt with the change."The reality is right now, our education system is set up in a way that takes the kids who have the least outside of school and gives them less inside of school, too,” Ms. Ushomirsky said. “We spend less on them per pupil, expect less from them … and give them less access to the best teachers.”

As poverty has deepened nationwide, the foundation also found most state supports for low-income children have not kept pace.

While poverty grew 40 percent in the Midwest and 33 percent in the South in the decade from 2001-2011, per-pupil expenditures grew 12 percent in each of those regions. In the West, per-student spending grew 7 percent while the poverty rate jumped by 31 percent. Only in the Northeast did spending growth, at 28 percent, keep ahead of student poverty growth, at 21 percent.

A version of this article appeared in the October 09, 2013 edition of Education Week as New Student Majority in South and West: Poor Children

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