A recent attention-grabbing headline is wrong.
The headline is wrong, even though Layton gets the facts pretty much right: 51 percent of kids are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, which are available only to low-income families. That’s an important story. But participation in the federal lunch program is, as she notes, only a rough proxy for poverty: you qualify if you have a family income less than 185 percent of the poverty line. For a family of four this comes to about $44,000, which certainly qualifies as working class or lower middle class, but not poverty stricken.
School lunch programs do not accurately measure poverty, and poverty rates have not changed much over the long term.
But wait! It’s even more complicated than that—and this part is important. On the one hand, lots of poor kids, especially in the upper grades, don’t participate in school lunch programs even though they qualify. They just don’t want to eat in the cafeteria. So there’s always been a bit of undercounting of those eligible. On the other hand, a new program called the Community Eligibility Provision, enacted a couple of years ago, allows certain school districts to offer free meals to everyone without any proof of income. Currently, more than 2,000 school districts enrolling 6 million students are eligible, and the number is growing quickly. For example, every single child in the Milwaukee Public School system is eligible. Overall, then, although the official numbers have long undercounted some kids, CEP means they now increasingly overcount others. Put this together, and participation in the school lunch program becomes an even rougher proxy for poverty than it used to be—and any recent “explosion” in the student lunch numbers needs to be taken with a serious grain of salt. This is especially true since overall child poverty hasn’t really changed much over the past three decades, and if you use measures that include safety net programs it’s actually gone down modestly since the end of the Reagan era.
Economist Alex Tabarrok points out that about 20% of school-age children live in poverty according to several other measures.
Obviously poverty is a serious problem that should not be ignored, and the causes are probably complex. But inaccurate reporting does not help in finding solutions.
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.
Kevin Drum, “Half of All Public School Kids in Poverty? Be Careful.”, Mother Jones, Jan. 17, 2015.
Lyndsey Layton, “Majority of U.S. public school students are in poverty”, Washington Post, Jan. 16, 2015.
Alex Tabarrok, “No, A Majority of US Public School Students are Not In Poverty”, Marginal Revolution, Jan. 17, 2015.