Sign up for our newsletter
School kids in El Cerrito, San Miguel County, New Mexico, in April 1941.
Photo: Department of Agriculture
The majority of kids in the South’s public schools are poor enough to be eligible for federal lunch subsidies, reports the Southern Education Foundation .
Now, what does that mean?
The foundation, which has been around for 140 years, takes a very simple measurement — the number of children who qualify for free or reduced price lunch — and looks at it across both time and the fifty states. This isn’t particularly a rural study. (Rural school districts are likely to be poorer.) It’s really a description of how the economy has changed over the past 20 to 30 years.
The increasing number of low-income children entering public schools across the country indicates that there are an increasing number of low-income families with children. And, the report says, this trend appears to be caused in part both by Latino immigration and by a stagnation of wages for middle and lower income families in the U.S.
First, some definitions: The report, A New Majority, measures the change in the number of students eligible for free or reduced price lunch at public schools. The federal free lunch program began in 1989 and includes kids from families with incomes up to 185 percent of poverty. In 1989, a family of three with a yearly income slightly over $18,000 qualified for a reduced price lunch. By 2007, families of three earning under $31,765 qualified.
A New Majority tracks the changes in the numbers of children in public schools coming from these relatively low income families, particularly in the South.
The report uses Census Bureau figures to show that both the number and percentage of low-income children in public schools dropped throughout the 1960s. At some point between 1959 and 1967, it’s likely that for the first time in history, low-income children did not constitute a majority of the students in the South’s public schools. “This trend in the South came to a halt in 1970,” the report finds, “when the percentage of low income children leveled off and remained essentially constant over five years.”
Then the trend reversed, and the percentage of low-income children began to rise. The foundation says the rise of low-income students was caused by a reduction in federal anti-poverty programs. When the federal free lunch program began in 1989, 37 percent of the students attending southern public schools had low enough family incomes to qualify. In the rest of the country, 29 percent of the students qualified.
From there, the numbers increase — in the South and the rest of the nation. In the 1990s, the West showed the greatest increase in eligible students, rising from 32 to 41 percent by 1995. By 2000, 41 percent of the nation’s students qualified; in the South, it was 46 percent.
See the charts here and below to track the difference among states in the percentage of low-income students in public schools. In 2004, half the students in southern public schools were low income. By this year, it was up to 54 percent. But the rise in low-income children attending schools wasn’t just a southern phenomenon. California and Oregon had a majority of low-income students in 2007 for the first time.
Okay, so the number of low-income kids enrolled in public schools is rising. Why? The report suggests there are more Latino and African American children (who are more likely to be born into poor households) coming into schools — a result both of immigration and high birth rates. Moreover, the report says, wages have stalled. “In most U.S. regions, and especially in the South, there has been a decline in the real value of wages and family incomes during the last few years,” the report states.
(One reason not given for the changing percentages is the withdrawal of white students from public schools. The report says there is “no statistical evidence of any appreciable growth in private school enrollment in the South that would determine significantly the low income trends in public schools.”)
The report does say there are consequences of increasing numbers of low-income students. Low-income students score lower on tests and they drop out of school in higher numbers. In 2005, 39 percent of all 18 to 24 year olds were in college — but only 25 percent of young people from low-income families were enrolled.
Below are the percentages of low-income students enrolled in the public schools in each state last year, sorted from the highest to the lowest:
|Rank||State||% of Low-Income Students in Public Schools|