Shameful Milestone: Majority of Public School Students Live in Poverty

Chicago To Close At Least 50 Public SchoolsAccording to a research bulletin released on January 15 by the Southern Education Foundation (SEF), for the first time in recent history, just over 50 percent of children attending U.S. public schools come from low-income families.

SEF collected data from the National Center for Education Statistics that broke out by state the percentage of students who were eligible to receive free or reduced price lunches during the 2012-13 school year. At least half of students fit this eligibility in 21 states, including California, Texas, and Florida.

Nineteen states have low-income student populations in the 40-48 percent range and 10 states have between 38 and 42 percent of their students living in poverty. Mississippi had the highest rate with 71 percent; New Hampshire the lowest percentage with 27 percent.

The nation reached this milestone rather quickly. In 1989, about one-third of students came from low-income households. In 2000, that figure had grown to 38 percent. The weak economy over the next decade, culminating in the Great Recession in 2008, sped up the pace. From 2006 to 2013, the percentage of public school students in poverty grew from 42 to 51 percent.

The trends are staggering, and yet the national debate over public education still provides inadequate space for a serious discussion about poverty and its impact on student achievement. Growing up in poverty is one of the greatest impediments to a child’s cognitive development and his ability to learn.

According to 2011 data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, fourth-graders who were eligible for free lunch scored 29 points lower on reading than those not eligible. Similar results were seen in eighth grade, where students eligible for free lunch scored 25 points lower.


students in poverty

Source: Southern Education Foundation

Compared to high-performing nations, the United States does not direct its education funding toward students who live in these low-income areas.

“(High-performing) countries spend their money in highly equitable ways,” explains Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University. “If you spend more in schools on the education of children who have fewer socioeconomic advantages, you do better as a country. Other countries invested more money and that is what shot them up in the rankings.”

Ensuring that children in poor neighborhoods have the same learning opportunities that children in more affluent neighborhoods have is a pillar of Whole Child Education, explains NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “Equity in resources and programs should be in every single school building.”

If the United States is to build a skilled workforce for the 21st Century, every child should have a chance to succeed academically, the Southern Education Fund report concludes.

“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.”

  • J. Kelly

    Poverty is a huge issue related to achievement, but it has become unacceptable to acknowledge it or use it as an excuse in the education world. The message we keep getting is it’s all about what teachers aren’t doing, and how we need to do more. In our urban district, regular classroom teachers have received extensive training and expanded our practices to include students with significant disabilities and high numbers of English language learners. There are so many challenges that we embrace, but achievement is still low. The teachers aren’t doing it wrong. One person cannot possibly meet the needs of so many students with challenges. We need more teachers, aides and specialists in classrooms to give low achieving students more attention. But that costs money…

    • Danyelle

      They would rather we spend hundreds of dollars out of our own meager pay checks to provide for these kids and classrooms than address the real issues. It’s so sad.

      • OneHumbleAmerican

        Refuse to do so.

    • Don Lowery

      I work as a paraprofessional for special needs students and a sub before that for several years. Love my job and especially my students.

      Due to the way education is treated in this country and politicians who believe teachers are the reason for the way schools are. I’m in my mid-50’s and would never consider any type of education degree due to the cost…the time involved and what I see how the other teachers are treated by parents/administrators/communities.

      Actually…if I could find a way to head to Germany or any other country where I could get an affordable education degree and teach in any other country but the US…I would do that in a heartbeat. It’s sad…but I don’t think I’m the only one who would do this.

  • Guest

    89% of American children attend public schools. If 51% of them were in poverty, it would imply that 45% of Americans are in poverty. According to the World Bank, 1.7% of Americans are in poverty. The SEF appears to overstating American poverty by a factor of ~25x.

    • Jackie

      The issue I have with this is that there actually is a difference between being low income and living in poverty. There is no doubt that many of our nation’s student do live in poverty and many more are considered low income. However, these are not the same.

      • Andrea

        Poverty and low income are one in the same. Either way, you don’t have enough to live comfortably. Poor is poor. I’m going to take a wild guess and say that you’ve probably never lived even close to the poverty level.

        • guest

          Research poverty and low income. There is a difference between the two.

          • disqus_XcXI4yx8W5
          • disqus_XcXI4yx8W5

            The difference between lowincome and poverty are not discernible to those living under such.

          • John

            There is a huge difference between poverty and low income. I have been in education for 20 years, mostly as a high school teacher. I would not say I live “comfortably” on what I earn. Lets keep in mind I have a masters degree and 20 years experience. I have spent most of my career working in districts with poverty higher than 75% and high homeless student populations. This is a serious issue. We need to address the social programs in our society when considering education because they are not separate in most areas of the countries.

        • Dede

          I had a parent hand me her “free lunch” application through the window of her new Range Rover. She qualified. While I agree there are many in great need (I’ve purchased shoes for students in my class) I think the number are overstated. This family qualified as low income but they absolutely were not living in poverty.

          • Bill

            I also work in an urban school that has a high percentage (over 70%) of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch. Additionally, we also have a a large number of homeless students. However, I find that the problems with student achievement stem less from the fact that these students come from low income families, and more to do with a lack of parental involvement in their child’s education. The school I work certainly could use better and more up to date resources, but this does no impede student achievement. Not having someone at home who checks that said students are completing homework and checking up on their production in school is the main issue IMHO. Some of my highest performing and achieving students are those who are classified as homeless, but they have a parent, or parents, at home that are encouraging them to take advantage of the opportunity, a quality education, that is being offered to them on a daily basis. With regard to your comment I also see students who receive free/reduced lunch, but have the latest phones, video game systems, high end clothes, and are also picked up in Range Rovers / BMW’s. While I am still new to the education field, I see that many of the problems with achievement and poverty stem from decisions/irresponsibility at home.

          • SunnyRoad2009

            After 20+ years of working in high-poverty areas, I’d say some folks are seeing the world of poverty through a narrow lens. Sure, we are ALL remiss in how we raise our children. Nevertheless, trying to be an involved parent is difficult for ME and I have a few extra dollars in the bank to hire a tutor, if needed. I have a dentist for my kids and, with minor worry, can order out if I’m exhausted. My kids own kids probably want more attention from this full-time teacher. I can’t imagine what it is like for parents barely able to pay the rent. Look at ANY statistics on the growing inequality in the US and one cannot deny the nearly impossible task of trying to raise a family and ‘get ahead’. The parents of the thousand + students I’ve taught over the years are doing the best they can with what they’ve got. And what they’ve got isn’t much. Walk a mile in their shoes, new teacher, before commenting.

          • Bill you are absolutely right–higher achieving students are generally the ones with strong parental involvement. The problem however is that we have single parents working more than one job to handle their financial obligations and therefore the child unfortunately is left to do most of her work on her own. This is where the schools come in however, because after school programs should operate in the fashion where students are helped with their homework and enrichment is mandated. Teachers are aware of who these students are and therefore more guidance for these children are required in the classroom. That can only happen if ALL classrooms have a permanent, qualified Teachers’ Aide. The second reason students lack parental involvement is because the parents themselves are uneducated and therefore the importance of education is not uppermost in their minds or they are not capable of helping due to a lack of knowledge themselves. Thirdly, we have parents who really should not be parenting for one reason or another and are incapable of helping their children. The bottom line is there are a lot of legitimate factors that impact the lack of parental involvement but the ones suffering are our students. I am a successful single parent of three highly educated children. I have worked with students for well over three decades and know that we need to spend the time to get to know our students better; identify their weaknesses and strengths. We must capitalize on their strengths and provide every opportunity to improve their weaknesses. This cannot be done by a single teacher in a classroom of 20-22 students–it’s impossible; please don’t tell me some teachers are doing it because our kids continue to fall through the cracks, not necessarily because teachers are not working to their maximum capacity, but because the emphasis and the financial backing that should be directed to education is being mismanaged by bureaucrats who have no idea how to meet the needs of the entire population and are too arrogant to listen to the ones dealing directly with the population–teachers and parents. Change can only happen with parents, teachers and bureaucrats work in unison and education is on a continuum.

          • kira nelson

            Often times children who are living in poverty have parents that are too busy to be involved, working two jobs etc. Perhaps they don’t have the educational skills themselves to help their children or are embarrassed and afraid they will be judged possibly by people like you, and so they remain uninvolved. There are cultural differences especially in the families of ELL students that affect the way the involve themselves in school matters. Poverty and school success are undeniably linked .

          • Mel

            Yeah,Bill! When will a policy develop that holds parents responsible for helping their children value and take advantage of the free education to which they are entitled. When can the parents who support their child in school be able to expect within reason, a minimum of disruptions of all kinds that impact classrooms across the country needlessly

          • kira nelson

            The car a person drives on any given day is not an indicator of their income status necessarily. For two weeks I drove a brand new car which my insurance company had rented for me when my car worth $1700 was stolen. There are any number of reasons a person who is low-income may be driving a nice car.

      • 1

        I agree. There is such a thing as low income yet you wear clean clothes, have food on the table and every free resource program your family has enrolled. So although your family has low income you don’t feel poor. Then there is poverty. Children who only seem to get a good meal from school..students clothes are dirty, students coming to school with no coats. Students living in shelters. Yes there is difference.

        • disqus_XcXI4yx8W5

          Wow. There is also such a thing as ignorance. Many living in poverty wear clean clothes everyday and many low income have known what it is to go bed hungry.

        • OneHumbleAmerican

          Children with scabies, head lice, measles……

          • CS

            Parents that refuse to vaccinate children and care for them. Some parents suck, what is your point? Poverty does not equate to poor parenting.

          • kira nelson

            Not sure what your point is.

    • Guest2

      Thank you for the first number – I was wondering that. However your math of 51% of 89% = 45% of Americans doesn’t accurately reflect households. Many non-low income households are older people who don’t have school age children. Also I believe it is still true that poorer people tend to have more children so that would also skew rates among students versus the general population. Lastly the 1.7% is on a global scale which isn’t comparable given costs here. Under the US definition, 14.5 % of Americans are in poverty.

      • irenaeus

        No one mentions the fact that during this same time period in which numbers of low income children have increased the number of children born into single parent households has sky rocketted. And I don’t care if you want to call me bigoted, the fact is that having a mom and dad who are married to each other make a huge difference. Our country will suffer from our blindness to this.

        • disqus_XcXI4yx8W5

          It should not matter. Everyone should have access to a living wage whether they are married or not. Not all poor children are born “outside of wedlock”, nor are all those born to unmarried parents poor. Nor should being such a child condemn you to poverty out of a callousness for a perceived moral failing of your parents to live up to some else’s religious ideals

        • Joanne

          You hit the nail on the head for all of the weakness in this country. The U.S.A. Was at its strongest when the nuclear family was at its strongest.

        • Don Lowery

          I hear about how “shacking up” is destroying America…this or that is destroying America…but the truth is that if the parent(s) can’t find a job which allows them to live in the fairy tale you propose…it does not matter how much people want a nuclear family. You can’t afford to get married due to lack of opportunities in this society and then turn your back on trying to help…talk is cheap and it doesn’t matter about the “morality” of the parents. Those crying the loudest and doing the least is what is destroying this country…not someone “shacking up”. I would even venture to say that whatever you believe isn’t worth the breath you use to say it.

          • ginny

            What ugly sentiments you expressed here. It isn’t “opinion” that America has suffered in many ways from the breakdown of the family; we were first warned about it by Patrick Moynihan (Democrat) in his report, A Nation at Risk, when black illegitimacy was 25% and the white rate was 7%. The black rate is now over 70%. Two parents in the home make a huge difference, but most young black kids (esp. boys) suffer greatly from not having ANY male role models in their lives. Plus, with the incentivizing of family breakup by welfare rules that prohibit government aid if there’s an able-bodied male adult in the home is disgusting. Yeah, must better to have an uncle (Sam) forking over taxpayer money than help Dad get a job or training himself. When you have the highest corporate taxes in the world (chasing them overseas, since their fudiciary responsibility, despite what you’d like it to be, is to their stockholders, which is JUST ABOUT THE ENTIRE MIDDLE CLASS OF THIS COUNTRY….then you have the public school system falling apart because the poor get the worst and most inexperienced teachers, who get laid off first (see the ACLU lawsuit against the state in CA) and lousy teachers get to keep their jobs FOREVER, it’s little wonder that nearly half of black kids drop out of school and end up in jail because they have NO FUTURE. Thanks, teachers unions. Good job. For an example of how a poor single (illiterate) mother 50 years ago motivated her sons to become 1) a rocket scientist, and 2) a brain surgeon, read GIFTED HANDS by Dr. Ben Carson. Poverty doesn’t destroy children’s education….lousy education creates poverty. And btw, it costs almost NOTHING to get married. I know — I did it on my porch.

        • SunnyRoad2009

          Please cite your source. Teen pregnancy is down yet poverty is up. Statistics are deceiving and can be perceived as opinions. Cite, cite cite.

        • kira nelson

          Lots of people mention this. You just did.

      • SunnyRoad2009

        “I also believe” is an opinion. Please add the source / statistics. 51% of school-aged children attending public schools live in poverty. I’d like to know more about how NAEP figured their stats before commenting. Statistics are a funny thing.

        • kira nelson

          The article staes how they arrived at that number. Read it again.

    • Michael

      It’s a good question, but I’m sure there’s an answer. I don’t think the intent of the article is to lie, but to spread awareness. It’s too bad we are not live in communication at the same time – your “question” about how the information was gathered could be answered. It’s difficult to have a discussion if we don’t all agree on the facts.

  • sarab1

    As I read the comments here, I am amazed as how we, as humans, can be so obtuse and argumentative in our comments. it is like a shouting match that no one wins. In our rich country, no child should go to bed hungry and all children deserve and must have a good education. Why all the comments on statistical issues—–this is not about numbers but about flesh and blood children. All, poor and rich alike are our future.

  • Jayashree

    I’m glad I serve them!

  • dippy doodle

    When will get over the idea of equality? When we tear down the rich so they can be poor, too. What will make a difference then? Values.

  • Lillia Jane Steele

    As a teacher and the adult child of a teacher and also the great-granddaughter of a teacher in the late 19th Century in rural northeastern Georgia I am so very proud to serve them as they also did. I also fall in the poverty area now and do not care who knows this. Just because you earn a degree does not exclude you from this. I will continue to proudly serve and work with them just as my mom and great-grand-mother did for them also forever or for as long as I can.

    • OneHumbleAmerican

      “Proud to serve others” – and “proud to be poor” are two different things. False “pride” is what will, if it hasn’t already, negatively impact this nation.

      • kira nelson

        She didn’t say she was “proud to be poor.” She said that she falls into the poverty area and doesn’t care who knows it. “Proud to be poor” and “not being ashamed of being poor” are also two different things .

  • MarineBob

    I am not clear about something in the data: Is the 51% an average of the many states or is it the count of overall people? It would seem to me the map showing the ‘poorest’ states are some of (not all) the most sparsely populated. That would skew the numbers. But never fear, we have the Common Core nonsense to level the playing field. Drag down the results in the higher performing states so the ‘gap’ shrinks. While all the while, Bill Gates and Pearson testing get richer. Perfect.
    How is any of this any educator’s fault? Maybe the government needs to stop giving handouts so people have more incentive to work. Maybe the government needs to toss out all the illegal aliens, oh sorry, undocumented, aliens so more unskilled jobs are available.

    • Simon_Jester

      Common Core isn’t decreasing standards anywhere; it is *raising* standards for about 80% of the states. If anything the problem is the opposite- in districts where students are already struggling and coming out of high school unready for college and careers, the transition to the *more* rigorous and challenging Common Core curriculum is very difficult.

      That notwithstanding, there are some serious problems with the above. One point is that given the number of people working two jobs, “incentive to work” is very obviously not the problem. I’d argue that the problem is that there are swarms of low-paying PART-TIME jobs because for the last ten years employers have been dropping full time employees and hiring temps.

      Staging pogroms against illegal aliens isn’t going to help with that either. Because the jobs said aliens work at aren’t magically going to turn into living-wage jobs that a man can support a family on at American standards of living. We’d just be reshuffling the existing set of low-quality, low-wage, low-hour jobs for the mass of underemployed people. We sure wouldn’t be getting rid of handouts.

      And honestly, the handouts are not the problem. If anything, education itself is a handout! But we hand it out freely because the cost of having the poor be totally uneducated is far higher than the cost of paying for public education. This is, to me, a matter of common sense.

      Giving ‘handouts’ to the poor WORKS, it keeps society from turning into a stratified mess, it creates equality of opportunity where that opportunity would otherwise not exist. The alternative is to let our society turn into an oligarchy of very powerful people with rights and money and opportunities for their children, and a mass of peasants. That is not a good way to keep America free, let alone prosperous.

  • Massi

    I am a 31 year veteran teacher and all I know is we can go on looking for someone to blame if we choose, but these children will be caring for us in the near future in one capacity or the other. That is a SCARY thought considering the cyclical pattern that our youth is observing regarding government handouts, programs, etc (I am BLACK). If government assisted programs were directly linked to student performance, student attendance, and parental involvement, I guarantee you performance in all areas would be on the RISE! It’s funny how teachers get all the bad pub….anybody hear any negativity about the college professors who prepared us for our careers!!! We aren’t the PROBLEM, it’s societal and it won’t get better until we stop the “finger pointing” and get on one accord!

    • SunnyRoad2009

      stop finger pointing and demand a change to the capitalist system that has created these conditions.

      • Giveitarest

        Oh please. Give it a rest with your Communist nonsense.

        Capitalism has done more throughout the planet to raise humankind’s standard of living that any other system in Earth. Like anything man-made, it has faults, so put your copy-and-paste gripes list away.

        Go live in Cuba or North Korea or talk to an older person from the Eastern Bloc before you spout this ridiculousness again.

      • ginny

        I guess you didn’t learn in public school (what a shock) that capitalism has cut world poverty IN HALF in the past 50 years, while socialism has produced nothing but misery, failure and decline (witness Venezuela which used to be a thriving, “emerging nation” when its government utilized conservative, capitalistic business and government practices, but now they have a dopey leftist in charge, and the country is going down the tubes. Investment has dried up, their economy is in shambles, the government is corrupt, supplies are in such shortage that citizens have to be FINGERPRINTED to buy bread and toilet paper. Your ignorance is frightening (like half of Harvard students polled recently, who thought socialism was just as good as capitalism…)

    • ginny

      Are you familiar with Dr. Ben Carson? His story is one of the most inspiring and spectacular success stories in American history (from dire poverty, single illiterate parent, ignorance, racism, violence, anger, etc to become one of the most honored and accomplished men in the world.) He and his brother were flunking out of school, when his illiterate single mother (who was working 60-70 hours a week cleaning houses) demanded they go to the library and check out two books a week and write her reports (that she couldn’t read.) He ended up being one of the most successful brain surgeons on the planet, his brother became a rocket scientist. It’s not poverty that kills, it’s lack of values, lack of parental responsibility and lousy schools that are failing our most vulnerable children miserably. Where poor blacks have SCHOOL CHOICE (like half of them in Harlem do and can go to good charter or private schools), they do spectacularly well – over 90% are graduating and going to college. The liberal Mayor DeBlasio wants to shut them all down. Opposing school choice is racist, says Condoleeza Rice. She’s right.

      You might find this interview snippet interesting:

  • Teacher Too

    Is it possible that, whatever the actual statistics are, that opening the flood gates of our southern borders and allowing, no, inviting, thousands upon thousands of people, and children, without jobs, without money, without skills, to come and camp out here forever, may be the reason that ALL the southern most states are the worst hit? (AZ being the least of them.) It is hard to believe that educators who should be educated could be surprised by this. But instead, we get the “Aww, poor things” attitude. There is a solution to this but you would be too politically correct to mention it, as is indicated by all the responses thus far.

    • kira nelson

      Read up on some common immigration myths. Some of the facts might surprise you.

      • kira nelson

        Also with the exception of the American Indians, everyone who is here now came here and camped out forever, but now that you’re here, we’re all good, so by all means close the gate!

  • MGM Urban school teacher

    Well, let’s keep doing the SmarterBalance testing then! Because all that shows is how public schools are failing! As a teacher, I know where that testing is going…it’s going to destroy public education…which is all most of the kids in poverty are getting. We in the business of education know that it can’t be run like a business! We are dealing with human beings with a variety of issues. You can’t rubber-stamp kids, teachers, or schools with a single test. The federal government doesn’t want to address the real issues that urban and semi-urban schools face…poverty…and how it directly effects a child’s performance in school!

  • MGM Urban school teacher

    I truly think that the new testing is being used as a way to “profitize” (is that a word?) education. When it is proved that public education is failing, then outsiders are brought in to “fix” the school. What are they doing to “fix” those schools? Does anyone have any facts to share about that? When all 8th graders are required to take Algebra, but they haven’t all developed abstract thinking skills yet and then don’t do well…my department chair said three years ago, “well, it will be called Algebra, but that isn’t what we’ll be doing.” I said, “huh?, you are kidding right?” Nope. Three years late, that is exactly what they are doing.

  • Trini

    Make education a payment for the parents and you will see a turn around.
    Public Schools are dumping grounds for babysitters.

    • kira nelson

      Privatize education and you will absolutely see a turn around, but it won’t be a positive one.

      • ginny

        Access to a good education is the civil right of our day (so says even Al Sharpton and Barack Obama), but when you have the poorest, most vulnerable children in our society getting sentenced to the worst public schools by our government, that’s an absolute crime. Sweden and Canada are cleaning our clocks on international tests, yet every family in those countries has school choice (i.e. vouchers) and can send their kid to any school they want to. Every place you have choice in this country (i.e. New Orleans, Washington D.C., Harlem, etc — despite the best efforts of Dems to destroy it), poor kids are doing beautifully. Even in CA, which is near the bottom of the barrel academically, there’s a tiny spot in the Central Valley, where a Hispanic farm worker with six kids gets to CHOOSE to send them to charter and parochial schools; his oldest son just got a scholarship to Stanford. One of the first (poor black) graduates of the tiny Opportunity Scholarship Program in D.C. just got a job with a Japanese company as an interpreter. Half of the kids in Harlem who are able to go to charter schools are graduating at a 90% rate and going to college; they just closed down the union-run charter in NYC that had proficiency rates of 11% and 18%. You should educate yourself, Kira, before spouting off about issues you know NOTHING about.

  • Ratpatrol7

    I looks as if we do not have enough jobs for their parents to make a living or Their parents are not responsible enough to get a job. My question is if there are not enough jobs, why are we allowing people from other countries to flood across our boarders? I am all for help the needy in other counties and I do but we need to be sure that citizens of our country have opportunities to make a living before we give those opportunities away to those from other countries. What is the difference from sending our jobs overseas or bringing in people from other countries to take them?

  • Tim A

    Basing any study on free and reduced lunch is moronic. It’s common knowledge that schools cannot and will not verify income. I work with several fellow teachers and all their children are on the lunch program.

    • CS

      Every student signed up is more money to the school- it is a scheme to shackle the locals schools to the Federal Gov’t.

  • Nancy

    The best antipoverty program ever invented is something called the family.

  • CS

    What the article fails to point out or even consider is the lower cost of living in many southern states. The threshold for free or reduced cost meals is based upon the poverty level set by the Gov’t. The thresholds are generous to the point of inclusiveness. To get reduced prices for example you need to make 130% to 185%.

    130% to 185% of the poverty level is not living in poverty folks, but families in this range are included in the article’s premise of a shameful situation and the pretty info graphic scare piece.

    Mississippi living wage is far less than what you might think and is often well below the 185% threshold in many if not all counties.

    See for yourself-

    eligibility detail-

    “Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent
    of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those with incomes between
    130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced‐price
    meals, for which students can be charged no more than 40 cents. (For the period
    July 1, 2013, through June 30, 2014, 130 percent of the poverty level is $30,615
    for a family of four; 185 percent is $43,568.)”

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  • Mowill1

    M. Williams
    It may be surprising to know, or maybe not, but many of the teachers working in public schools are living in or very near poverty themselves.

  • hi


  • hi

    this is very nice to know some fact