No, WaPo, Half of U.S. Kids Aren’t Living in Poverty (But the Truth is Still Pretty Bad)

On Friday, the Washington Post carried a shocking story: “Majority of U.S. Public School Students are in Poverty.”

The problem: It’s not true. The Washington Post article is based on a Southern Education Foundation analysis of National Center for Education Statistics data on students eligible for free and reduced price lunch, which, as the article notes, is sometimes cited as a proxy for poverty. But it’s NOT the same thing as poverty. Federal policymakers, recognizing that many non-poor families could also benefit from assistance, intentionally set the eligibility for free- and reduced-price school meals above the poverty level. At 185 percent of poverty to be exact (the eligibility for free meals is 130 percent of poverty).

This is a huge difference: The poverty line for a family of three is $19,790. But 185 percent of poverty is $36,611 for a family of three. That’s hardly a generous amount on which to raise a family. But it’s much more than $19,790. So, looking at the percentage of children eligible for free and reduced price lunch captures both many more children than looking at the number of children in poverty, and children from families whose economic circumstances are significantly different from those of families living below the poverty line.

It’s unfortunate the Washington Post chose to run with such an inaccurate headline. In no small part, because the truth is bad enough! We know, from the Census Bureau, that one in five children under age 18 lives in poverty. It is utterly shameful that such high rates of child poverty exist in the world’s richest country. And I fear that this inaccurate coverage may actually prevent readers from grasping how bad things really are.

Moreover, treating FRPL eligibility as a proxy for poverty elides important differences in both families and schools. Low-income children are at educational risk in the United States, but not all are equally at risk. Children from families living below the poverty line are at increased risk, particularly when, as is often the case, their families’ economic difficulties are accompanied by health or mental health issues, high rates of mobility and instability, or repeated exposure to trauma. Children from families with these risk factors need intensive interventions and supports–including academic and social-emotional supports as well as comprehensive services–to address the impact of these forces on their lives. But not all low-income children do. Similarly, two schools with significant concentrations of free- and reduced-price lunch eligible children may have very different needs depending on the depth of poverty of the students they serve. Eliding these differences with imprecise data undermines our ability to respond effectively and appropriately to the different needs of different populations of students and schools. At worst, in can make family, social, and educational problems seem more intractable than they are.

Finally, I’d note that this data does raise a serious obstacle for those who argue that the best way to improve the educational outcomes for low-income kids is to send more of them to majority middle class schools. But when more than half of kids live in low-income families, those low-income children can attend majority middle class schools only if they go to schools that serve lower populations of low-income children than the nation as a whole. The idea that slightly increasing the number of low-income kids in middle class schools will get us to educational nirvana is a pipe dream. Given our nation’s current demographics, there is no path to ensuring quality education for all low-income kids that does not require increasing the number of high-performing schools serving significant concentrations of poor and/or low-income children.

Should we also be working to change other social and economic factors so that a lot fewer kids live in poverty? I, for one, absolutely believe we should (basic guaranteed income sounds like a pretty good idea to me). But I know that the majority of the American people don’t agree with me on that (or on how to do so). Nor do I think kids who are kids today can afford to wait until we change the underlying political and economic forces to end poverty. Working to improve our public schools and working to advance other strategies to end poverty are complementary, not conflicting, goals.