No, Half of All Schoolchildren Are Not in Poverty

Empty Classroom (1)
AP Photo

A new study making the rounds claims that “More Than Half of American Schoolchildren Now Live in Poverty.” Despite the ravages the Obama economy has wrought on Americans, the analysis, conducted by the Southern Education Foundation, is fraught with methodological problems that undermine the headlines the study has produced.

The Southern Education Foundation study used the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches as a proxy for actual poverty statistics. By this metric, the group concluded that 51 percent of children in 2013 now qualify for subsidized school food. The problem: Recent changes by the Department of Agriculture have instituted a policy known as the “Community Eligibility Provision” that allows schools that “predominantly serve low-income children” to give all students free meals, regardless of whether they are eligible for free meals.

As the New York Times notes, “The number of children eligible for subsidized lunches has probably increased in part because the federal Agriculture Department now allows schools with a majority of low-income students to offer free lunches to all students, regardless of whether they qualify on an individual basis or not.”

As even the progressive Mother Jones points out, “Currently, more than 2,000 school districts enrolling 6 million students are eligible… For example, every single child in the Milwaukee Public School system is eligible.”

Moreover, even children who are eligible for free lunch are not necessarily living below the federal poverty line. “Subsidized lunches are available to children from families that earn up to $43,568, for a family of four, which is about 185 percent of the federal poverty level,” reports the Times.

None of this suggests that childhood poverty does not remain a critical problem. According to the Census Bureau’s report last September, in 2013, the poverty rate for children under 18 was 19.9 percent.

Still, the facts matter: The Obama administration has signaled that in 2016 it wants to pump $1 billion more into the free food program for schools with high percentages of poor students.