For the first time in modern history, more than half of U.S. public school students live in low-income households, reveals a new analysis of federal data by the Southern Education Foundation.
Overall, 51 percent of U.S. schoolchildren were from low-income households in 2013, according to the report, which analyzed data from National Center for Education Statistics on students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Eligibility for free or subsidized lunch for students from low-income households serves as a proxy for measuring poverty in education settings.
The report shows that the percentage of schoolchildren from poor households has grown steadily for nearly a quarter-century, from 32 percent in 1989. “By 2006, the national rate was 42 percent and, after the Great Recession, the rate climbed in 2011 to 48 percent,” the report says.
Kent McGuire, president of the Southern Education Foundation, told The New York Times that the analysis shows poverty has reached a “watershed moment.”
“The fact is, we’ve had growing inequality in the country for many years,” McGuire said. “It didn’t happen overnight, but it’s steadily been happening. Government used to be a source of leadership and innovation around issues of economic prosperity and upward mobility. Now we’re a country disinclined to invest in our young people.”
High proportions of low-income students were evident across the country, but Southern and Western states had the highest percentages of poor students, the report shows. Mississippi had the highest rate of low-income students, at 71 percent, while New Hampshire had the lowest, at 27 percent.
The U.S. must find ways to confront the barriers poverty creates for academic achievement in order to thrive, the report says. “No longer can we consider the problems and needs of low income students simply a matter of fairness,” it says. “… Their success or failure in the public schools will determine the entire body of human capital and educational potential that the nation will possess in the future.”
Childhood Poverty: Short- & Long-Term Effects
Poverty has profound effects on the health, well-being, and educational outcomes of children. Among other things, poor children have increased infant mortality; more frequent and severe chronic diseases such as asthma; poorer nutrition and growth; less access to quality health care; lower immunization rates; and increased rates of obesity and its complications.
There is also increasing evidence that poverty in childhood creates a significant health burden in adulthood that is independent of adult level risk factors and is associated with low birth weight and increased exposure to toxic stress (causing structural alterations in the brain, long term epigenetic changes, and increased inflammatory markers).
The consequences of poverty for child and adolescent development are perhaps even more critical than those for health. These are the consequences that may change their life trajectories, lead to unproductive adult lives, and trap them in intergenerational poverty. Children from low-income families often start school already behind their peers who come from more affluent families, as shown in measures of school readiness, leading to poorer academic achievement and lower rates of high school graduation. They also have less positive social and emotional development which, in turn, often leads to life “trajectory altering events” such as early unprotected sex with increased teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, and increased criminal behavior as adolescents and adults; and they are more likely to be poor adults with low productivity and low earnings.
Although the nation has made policy decisions to support the elderly (whose poverty prevalence has dropped from 35 percent in 1959 to 9 percent in 2010), the same has not been done for children. In fact, according to a recent report from UNICEF, the U.S. has the one of the highest rates of childhood poverty in the developed world, despite being one of the richest nations on earth. Even worse, some of the most effective anti-poverty programs — like food stamps, subsidized school lunches, and Medicaid — are under attack by Republicans in Congress, who are pushing to authorize devastating cuts to these essential lifelines.