Equity & Diversity

Popular Child-Poverty Measure Gets Another Look

By Sarah D. Sparks — August 19, 2014 6 min read

When it comes to free school meals, it’s increasingly clear that students aren’t always what they eat.

The federal free- and reduced-price meals program, launched decades ago by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to combat child hunger through schools, has become a ubiquitous proxy for poverty in federal and state education and health programs, and public and private research on poverty. As eligibility criteria and participation in the program changes, however, researchers and state data experts argue it is a less-accurate lens through which to view disadvantaged students.

“It’s Department of Agriculture data,” said Matthew Cohen, the chief research officer for the Ohio education department’s office of policy and research, in a seminar at the National Center for Education Statistics annual meeting last month. “It’s becoming progressively less suitable for the education community. Rather than repurposing data needed to administer a meals program, we need to advance the data needed by educators and policymakers.”

Mr. Cohen chairs a working group of data watchers from eight states and the U.S. Department of Education who are searching for alternatives to lunch program eligibility for measuring socioeconomic status.

Ubiquitous Yardstick

Most state testing programs use free- and reduced-lunch eligibility as an indicator for “economically disadvantaged” when disaggregating scores.

The percentage of students in a school or district who qualify for free and reduced-price school meals is used in dozens of ways by researchers, program administrators, educators, and others.


Some state agencies, like the Minnesota health department, use school lunch eligibility as a proxy for poverty when assessing poverty’s effects on children.


Federal supplemental grants for disadvantaged students are based in part on this indicator. It’s also used to “weight” students in state school funding formulas.


Researchers use this indicator as a stand-in for poverty in developing interventions for low-income children.

Program Planning

Federal and state agencies rely on school-meal-eligibility rates to develop programs aimed at school-age children.

Testing Accountability

Most state testing programs use free- and reduced-lunch eligibility as an indicator for “economically disadvantaged” when disaggregating scores.


Schools use this criterion to decide which students qualify for subsidized breakfasts or lunches.

City Planning

Local agencies and organizations sometimes use school-meal eligibility rates in urban planning.

Extracurricular Activities

Fee-based school sports, field trips, and other activities often waive or reduce fees for students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals.


Philanthropies often use the measure as an index of poverty when awarding grants to improve education outcomes.

The need for alternatives and supplements is becoming more urgent, as recent federal rule changes broaden eligibility for the program to include whole communities and changing school structures, such as charters and online schools, mean more students don’t eat on campus.

Students’ socioeconomic status “is the one thing we are the worst at capturing, and it might be the single most important variable for us as academics, as teachers, as clinicians,” said Ramani Durvasula, an associate psychology professor at California State University, Los Angeles, in a lecture on poverty at the American Psychological Association meeting in Washington this month.

Coming to the Table

While federal meals programs have been used to identify low-income students at least as far back as the landmark 1966 Coleman Report on economic disparities in education, critics have argued for nearly that long that eligibility becomes less accurate as poor students get older and become less inclined to eat in the school cafeteria.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress in science, for example, was unable to use free-meal eligibility to disaggregate scores for 12th graders in 2009 because too few students participated in the program. Similarly, high schools applying for federal Title I grants often must use data from feeder schools to help prove their poverty rates, because older students are more reluctant to sign up for meals.

“Free and reduced-price lunch just doesn’t always work,” Deborah Rodrigues, the education statistics director of the Center for Data Quality and Information Technology at the Pennsylvania education department, said at the meeting. “Kids aren’t always educated where they eat. Charter school kids may be eating in a district school or the church down the street if the school doesn’t provide meals.”

On the other side of the coin, the Agriculture Department’s “community eligibility option,” rolled out in 2012, allows high-poverty districts to offer free meals to all students without requiring income proof from individual families. That has been a boon in getting hungry children fed, but has complicated schools’ ability to collect individual students’ poverty data. Michigan and Kentucky are among the states that now collect that data separately.

But it’s not easy, especially at a time when parents are becoming increasingly wary of giving information out to schools. “A data collection without the leverage of feeding kids who need to be fed is problematic,” said David Weinberger, the executive director of student information, assessment, and reporting for Yonkers public schools in New York.

Altogether, a 2010 study in Educational Researcher estimates 20 percent of students are misidentified by school meal programs, either as ineligible when they are, or eligible when they are not.

A Full Plate

Even among qualified meal-program participants, there can be a wide range of income and resources.

In the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia, a family of four earning $44,123 per year—185 percent of the federal poverty line—or less would qualify for reduced-price meals, while one earning up to $31,005 per year—130 percent of the poverty line—would be eligible for free meals. Families in Alaska have slightly higher eligibility cutoffs, while Hawaii’s are lower, according to the Agriculture Department’s 2014-15 guidelines.

“Your perception of your family status can have more of an impact on educational outcomes than the income coming through that household,” said Susan Williams, the manager of data management and accountability systems for Virginia’s education department.

For educators and researchers, there may be differences in academic risks and needs of the child of a new teacher in Colorado making $31,300, the child of a freelance writer in New York who earns the same amount but has become homeless, and a child in Atlanta whose home is secure but whose parents are earning the same income through several part-time jobs.

Quantifying Disadvantage

“What we’re really talking about here is education disadvantage; one’s access to financial, social, cultural, and human capital resources,” Mr. Cohen said. While malnutrition and food instability have been linked to poor academic performance, he noted, other indicators, like parents’ education and occupation, may be more tied to educational disadvantage. “Free- and reduced-price-lunch eligibility is the de facto standard, but these data reflect only the economic part of the [socioeconomic] concept,” Mr. Cohen said.

In a 2012 report, the National Forum for Education Statistics working group laid out three interconnected aspects of poverty which might be used to create more comprehensive indexes: community-, neighborhood- and school-level socioeconomic status.

Catching these facets of poverty will mean getting more comprehensive economic information, and potentially, other information about the resources available to students.

On the economic front, many states and programs also track participation in other government support programs, such as supplementary nutrition assistance, often known as food stamps; Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, which is used for child-care subsidies in many states; and heating oil supplements in colder states. Some categories, such as students who are homeless, migrant, or in foster care, encompass low-income children but show different risk factors.

But the working group is also looking for ways to capture educational resources beyond family income, such as parents’ education levels, school resources, and community concentration of poverty. More contextual data could allow researchers to better study the differences in rural versus urban poverty, and so on.

Some of these supplemental measures also raise concerns, though. For example, the NAEP collects data on parents’ occupations and highest education levels by asking students as young as 4th grade to report that information. These data would be stronger if they could be matched against existing Census Bureau information.

The working group is still developing one or several index measures that combine multiple measures.

“We’re used to having this silver bullet lunch data,” Douglas Geverdt, an analyst in the Census Bureau’s governments division, said, “and maybe now we are entering a period when we need to move beyond a silver bullet.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 20, 2014 edition of Education Week as Analysts Rethinking Popular Indicator of Child Poverty


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