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.