Recently, EdBuild launched an interactive map that highlights student poverty in every school district across the United States. After receiving a number of inquiries about our methods, we created this guide to help answer common questions.
What Numbers are You Using?
The student poverty numbers reported in the linked EdBuild map reflect the number of school-aged children falling below the federal poverty line, as reported in the US Census Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates data set. Therefore, the numbers in this map are not the often-referenced United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Free and Reduced Price Lunch (FRL) eligibility numbers, which include students from households with income up to 185% of that poverty level. If the student poverty numbers for your school district differ from what you’ve heard in the past, it’s most likely because of this difference.
So How Different, Exactly, Are They?
In short, very. The household income for a family of four living at the federal poverty line is $24,250. However, the same-sized family is eligible for reduced price lunch up to an income of $44,863. This creates a large discrepancy between the number of children considered to be living in “poverty” by the federal definition and the number participating in the school lunch program. In other words, in cities and towns across the country, there are a lot more students eligible for FRL than there are below the federal poverty line. While the student population of Los Angeles Unified School District includes 31.4% of children in poverty, FRL rates for the same district average about 59%. The poverty rate among students in the Houston Independent School District is 33.6%, but over 79% of those students are eligible for FRL.
Why Are You Changing On Us Now?
There have historically been many measures that policymakers, researchers, and administrators have used to measure “economic distress” at both the community and student/youth level. Traditionally, in our public education system, this measure has been tied to student eligibility to participate in the USDA Free and Reduced Price Lunch program.
This program, colloquially referred to as “FRL,” “FRPL,” or “FRSL,” served as a convenient analog for student need. Despite many arguments that the program was a flawed measure of economic distress, it was favored for practical reasons: given that each student needed to be “certified” in order to participate in the program, the data was reliably collected and reported by schools and districts, making FRL eligibility an easy figure to reference.
However, the USDA changed its qualifications for participation in the program in 2013 in a way that made FRL data far less convenient. The agency now allows schools serving significantly needy student populations to certify that their whole school community, rather than individual students, is eligible for the school lunch program. This new option to elect “Community Eligibility” eliminates the need for schools to collect student-level data if the students are already certified to participate in other federal assistance programs, like SNAP (food stamps) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, at a rate of 40% or higher. This is a positive step forward for schools serving a large proportion of students that need food assistance, as it reduces the administrative burden of collecting student-level data and reduces the potential stigma of enrolling in the program. However, it also reduces the ability of policy makers to use the FRL program as an accurate proxy for student distress. For instance, Bridgeport, Connecticut was one of the first jurisdictions to elect Community Eligibility. That raised its FRL participation rate to 100%, which dwarfs those of Hartford (85%) and New Haven (66%). But if you examine poverty rates in our map, you’ll see that Bridgeport actually serves fewer students below the federal poverty line: 28%, compared to 40% in Hartford and 31% in New Haven.
Community Eligibility is reducing barriers to school meals, which is a good thing for both students and communities. But it will also necessitate a change in the way policy makers think about community economic distress. For this reason, EdBuild prefers to report on poverty levels. We feel this will eliminate the possibility for the FRL data to misrepresent the true level of student need.
What Else Do We Need to Know?
Using the federal poverty level instead of the FRL eligibility threshold is a first step, eliminating the possibility that FRL program changes will falsely inflate student need. However, it is not the only consideration that one should apply in reporting education data. A critical failing of the federal poverty line (and of assistance programs that rely upon it) is its lack of cost adjustment for regional price differences. $24,250 annual income (as low as it is) buys much more for a household in Mississippi than it does in Massachusetts. Stay tuned for more from EdBuild on this issue. We promise we’ll continue to provide more statistics that will change the way you look at education spending and student need.