In widely reported article the Washington Post says a Majority of U.S. public school students are in poverty. The article cites the Southern Education Foundation:
The Southern Education Foundation reports that 51 percent of students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in the 2012-2013 school year were eligible for the federal program that provides free and reduced-price lunches.
Eligibility for free and reduced-price lunches, however, depends on eligibility rules and not just income levels let alone poverty rates. The New York Times article on the study is much better:
Children who are eligible for such lunches do not necessarily live in poverty. Subsidized lunches are available to children from families that earn up to $43,568, for a family of four, which is about 185 percent of the federal poverty level.
The number of children eligible for subsidized lunches has probably increased in part because the federal Agriculture Department now allows schools with a majority of low-income students to offer free lunches to all students, regardless of whether they qualify on an individual basis or not.
Frankly I suspect that this study was intended to confuse the media by conflating “low-income” with “below the poverty line”. Indeed, why did this study grab headlines except for the greater than 50% statistic? It is very easy to find official numbers of the number of students in poverty according to the federal poverty standard. Here is what the National Center for Education Statistics says about school-age children and poverty (most recent data):
In 2012, approximately 21 percent of school-age children in the United States were in families living in poverty.
The number of school-age children living in poverty today is relatively high and not surprisingly did increase with the 2008 recession and its aftermath (green line in figure below – the numbers here differ slightly from NCES but the time line is longer). But recent numbers do not look like especially remarkable compared to the history.
It’s certainly worthwhile discussing why poverty has increased. The economy is one possible reason as are issues to do with family formation and marriage rates. Another possibility is immigration. A higher poverty rate caused by the immigration of more low-income children is compatible with everyone becoming better off over time and not necessarily a bad thing. Those are just a few possible topics worthy of investigation. I don’t claim that any of them are correct.
I do claim, however, that we won’t get very far understanding the issue by shifting definitions and muddying the waters with misleading but attention grabbing statistics.