Education Funding

How Many Students Are Living in Poverty? The Number Is Likely Wrong

By Mark Lieberman — June 29, 2021 5 min read
In this Sept. 9, 2020, file photo, Santa Fe Public School food workers Dolores Rodella and Eva Dominguez distribute lunches and breakfasts at a bus stop during the coronavirus pandemic in Santa Fe, New Mexico. New Mexico has recently underwent a pilot program to target aid to the highest-poverty schools in the state.
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Every year, federal, state, and local lawmakers attempt to target billions of dollars to schools with seemingly high concentrations of students from families in poverty. The aid is designed to support academic interventions, nutrition services, one-on-one tutoring, behavioral interventions, and other supports to help close gaps in funding and resources between low- and high-income neighborhoods.

A new research paper published last month argues that many schools and government agencies are doing it wrong. It turns out the proportion of students receiving free or reduced-price meals, which many government officials and school administrators use to distribute aid, is a misleading and outdated proxy for measuring poverty.

About 52 percent of U.S. students were eligible for free and reduced-price meals in 2019, according to the most recent federal data. Prioritizing dollars for all those students risks diluting aid for the ones who need it the most.

But researchers think they’ve found a better way to quantify poverty, and at least one state is already trying out a new approach. The pandemic has made these efforts more urgent, as data on free and reduced-price meals appear to reflect that many families aren’t filling out surveys that would identify them as high-need.

Why does this matter?

Nearly half of states have funding formulas that target aid to high-need students using free and reduced-price meal statistics. Philanthropic organizations use those numbers to prioritize grant recipients. Reporters use them as shorthand to illustrate the proportion of high-need students in a school or district. (I did it here just a few weeks ago.)

Co-authors Ishtiaque Fazlul, Cory Koedel, and Eric Parsons from the University of Missouri build on existing research to present the most robust evidence yet that conflating poverty with the number of students getting free or reduced-price meals leads to inaccurate and misleading assertions.

Those meal programs, the paper argues, often include students who don’t meet the technical definition of eligibility for the program. As a result, that metric doesn’t provide a finer-grain understanding of which students are actually living in families with severe economic challenges.

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I’m always looking for more precise ways to describe the level of poverty in a school district or state. I’d also like to get a better understanding of approaches to providing financial support to students with the greatest needs. If you have thoughts on either of these subjects, get in touch anytime:

How did they figure this out?

Researchers identified two other poverty metrics for students in Missouri, verified them against each other, and then compared them against statistics for students eligible for free and reduced-price meals (FRM).

They then broadened their search to 27 states, and drew the same conclusion: The number of students in families below the poverty criteria for free or reduced price meal eligibility is lower than the number of students enrolled in free and reduced-price meal programs. Programs that offer free meal programs are particularly “oversubscribed,” the report says.

Why? Researchers posit a couple theories. For one, “districts are incentivized to identify students as FRM eligible but are not similarly incentivized to do so accurately.”

Here’s how that works: Some students automatically qualify for free and reduced-price meals because their families are already receiving federal assistance like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. But others qualify by responding to surveys from their school or district affirming their income is at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line (for free meals), or between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty line (for reduced-price meals).

For understandable reasons, families want their children to have access to cheaper meals, and schools get more government funding as their FRM programs grow. Most of the FRM surveys aren’t formally verified for accuracy, which is good from the standpoint of getting more families cheap or free meals, but less ideal for getting an accurate picture of poverty.

Why does this matter?

Authors of the study aren’t advocating for abandoning data on the number of students in FRM programs. But, they argue, those numbers tell a story about “student disadvantage” that’s far more precise than the one they tell about student poverty.

Calculating student poverty accurately is important, they point out, because a wide variety of policies around state funding and accountability allocate dollars and resources for schools and districts based on the level of poverty among their students. Debates around reforming student need calculations, meanwhile, often rely on the faulty assumption that FRM statistics measure poverty, rather than the broader category of disadvantage.

Some schools in high-poverty areas also qualify for funding to automatically enroll all of their students in free meal programs. Those districts might be skewing the FRM data as well, researchers argue.

During the pandemic, some advocates and lawmakers have been pushing for universal free school meals. In part, they’re responding to the substantial drop in applicants for FRM programs that happened during the pandemic.

If those policies come to pass at the state or federal level, they’re likely to make FRM numbers even less indicative of poverty.

See Also

Kejuan Turner, 8, eats a burger from a free bagged lunch provided by the Jefferson County School District on the back of his mother's truck with his brother, Kendrell, 9, outside their home in Fayette, Miss.
Kejuan Turner, 8, eats a burger from a free bagged lunch provided by the Jefferson County school district on the back of his mother's truck with his brother, Kendrell, 9, outside their home in Fayette, Miss., in March.
Leah Willingham/AP

Did the researchers suggest an alternative?

Yes! Researchers argue that school neighborhood poverty metrics from the National Center for Education Statistics could potentially serve as a more precise indicator of poverty than the FRM numbers. They’re hoping further research will examine those figures in more detail.

How does calculating poverty play out in the real world?

And finally, how calculating poverty plays out in the real world:
New Mexico’s Public Education Department recently took an intriguing step to target aid more precisely to districts with a high concentration of poverty. State officials culled census data and anonymous tax records to identify students from families below certain income thresholds, like $34,000 for a family of four.

The state’s 108 schools with the highest percentage of students that meet those criteria received additional state funds, beyond the state’s annual funding formula, with no strings attached. Eligible schools received between $500 and $1,500 per student.

State officials are encouraging recipients to use the Family Income Index money for one-on-one tutoring programs, at-home counseling, hiring reading and math specialists, offering innovative professional development for teachers, and other related efforts.

Money from the new program reached 69 of the state’s 89 public school districts, and 10 of its 98 charter systems, according to a Quay County Sun report. All of the recipients will get another equal round of funding next school year.

Recent data suggest it makes sense for New Mexico to be revamping its school funding approach. The state ranked in the bottom 10 and earned a D+ rating on spending from the EdWeek Research Center’s 2021 Quality Counts report. It also ranked second to last among states in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2021 report on child well-being, which measures a variety of youth issues, including poverty.


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