More Than Half of American Public School Kids Have This Sad Problem

With the number of students receiving reduced or free lunch at school at an all-time high, America's losing the ability to bootstrap its way to success.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jan 20, 2015· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

On Tuesday night President Obama will deliver his 2014 State of the Union address, and for the past two weeks he has been busy hammering home the connection between education and growing the nation’s middle class: You can’t get one without the other.

Now a new study of federal data reveals a disturbing trend playing out in the nation's public schools. For the first time in American history, more than half of all schoolchildren qualify for free or reduced cafeteria lunches. The Southern Education Foundation study shows that 51 percent of public school students were classified as low income in 2013, and the trend shows no sign of slowing in the near future.

“In 40 of the 50 states, low income students comprised no less than 40 percent of all public schoolchildren,” according to the report. “In 21 states, children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches were a majority of the students in 2013,” with six other states likely to reach that status if trends continue.

Nearly half of the states with the highest concentration of poor students are in the South and Southwest, but Western states like California and Oregon are on the verge of joining them, according to the report.

Steve Suitts, the Southern Education Foundation’s vice president, told the New York Times that migration of poor immigrant families to areas where they haven't previously resided is partly driving the trend. Those students, he said, typically need more services—including remedial education, medical and behavioral help—in addition to meals, yet their families don’t usually have the money to get them what they need, straining stretched-thin school resources.

And at a time when Obama’s attempt to rebuild the middle class is combined with a global economy and federal rules like No Child Left Behind, the fates of poor students and their more affluent peers are inextricably linked, Suitts said.

“No longer can we consider the problems and needs of low income students simply a matter of fairness,” he said in a statement accompanying the report. “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. Without improving the educational support that the nation provides its low income students—students with the largest needs and usually with the least support—the trends of the last decade will be prologue for a nation not at risk, but a nation in decline."

According to the report, Mississippi was the state with the highest concentration of poor schoolchildren: “seventy-one percent, almost three out of every four public school children in Mississippi, were low-income. The nation’s second highest rate was found in New Mexico, where 68 percent of all public school students were low income in 2013.”

Southern states comprised 12 of the next 14 states with the highest rates of low- income students. Louisiana’s rate was 65 percent in 2013, followed by Arkansas and Oklahoma with 61 percent. Had it been granted statehood, the District of Columbia, with a rate of 61 percent, would have ranked among this group and made the total count 22 states with a majority of low-income students.

The next worse off were Texas and Georgia—60 percent of public schoolchildren in each state come from low-income homes.

Obama has spoken in the past about how education is the bedrock of American success in the global economy, yet he also seems to have acknowledged the enormity of fighting middle-class decline into poverty—a challenge reflected in the Southern Education Center report.

In his 2011 State of the Union Address the president said the collapse of the middle class was a "Sputnik moment" that should spur the country into action. By 2014's State of the Union address Obama had dialed back his rhetoric. "The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by—let alone get ahead. And too many still aren't working at all...our job is to reverse these trends. It won't happen right away," said the president last year. However, with this level of poverty in America's schools, we should all be concerned over whether a so-called Sputnik moment can ever happen again.