Featured Indicator: A Glimpse at Poverty in America's Schools

Supportive educational institutions are essential to meet the future demands of employers, as the next generation of entrepreneurs and job creators are incubated in our K-Grade 12 systems.

This month's indicator is sourced from the expansive data collection of The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The NCES is a federal agency under the Department of Education tasked with collecting data to report on the state of American schools. Camoin's workforce specialist, Ian Flatt, also used NCES data in his Navigator article this month to cover high poverty schools and workforce development programs. 

While the NCES data collection is expansive, a particular data set reporting the percentage of students eligible for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which offers eligible students free or reduced-price lunch, caught my attention. The free or reduced-price lunch program is available to students that meet standards defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), who administers the program, as outlined below:

"Students with household incomes under 185 percent of the poverty threshold are eligible for free or reduced price lunch under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). In addition, some groups of children--such as foster children, children participating in the Head Start and Migrant Education programs, and children receiving services under the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act--are assumed to be categorically eligible to participate in the NSLP. Also, under the Community Eligibility option, some nonpoor children who attend school in a low-income area may participate if the district decides that it would be more efficient to provide free lunch to all children in the school."

In 2012, the program served 31 million students across the country throughout public, non-profit private and residential child care institutions. The meal must fit the federal guidelines of a “healthy” meal, as it is intended to provide students with appropriate nutrition to be able to learn in school.

For the purposes of this graph, school poverty level is defined based on the percentage of students in that school who are eligible for the free or reduced- price lunch program described above. For example, schools where 0-25% of the student population are eligible for the National School Lunch program are considered Low Poverty schools. A complete breakdown of the scale of poverty is listed below:

  • < 25% of student population eligible for free and reduced price lunch program: Low Poverty School
  • 25.1-50% of student population eligible for free and reduced price lunch program: Mid-Low Poverty School
  • 50.1-75% of student population eligible for free and reduced price lunch program: Mid-High Poverty School
  • > 75 % of student population eligible for free and reduced price lunch program: High Poverty School

The graph below shows the distribution of students who are eligible for the free or reduced-lunch program by two characteristics: school poverty level and school locale (locale definitions are here). This data shows that high poverty schools are more prevalent in cities than in towns, suburbs or rural areas. According to the data, 43% of students who go to school in cities attend a school that is considered to be in high poverty, while only 19% of students in towns attend high poverty schools, followed by 18% of students in the suburbs and 14% of students at rural schools. The suburbs report the greatest proportion of students attending schools in less severe poverty, as nearly a third of students attend schools within the low poverty classification.1

Why is this important for economic development and workforce professionals?

It is necessary for economic development and workforce professionals to be aware of these geographic divides to strategically create and implement programs that take into account the realities of their students. Considering how poverty affects kids throughout each stage of schooling is important, however high school is a critical time for students in envisioning careers and future schooling options that will determine their earning power later in life. While the overall high school graduation rate in the United States is at a historical high, high poverty schools are not following the same trajectory. The high school graduation rate for low-income schools is around 75%, while the graduation for schools that are not low-income is nearly 90%. This is troubling as young adults that do not graduate from high school are at a severe disadvantage in job searching.

An American Public Media report states that in 1973, about 32% of all jobs could be attained by individuals that had dropped out of high school and another 40% were within reach to individuals with just a high school diploma. Today these figures have changed dramatically, as only 10% of all jobs are available for people who did not graduate high school and 22% are now open to those with a high school diploma as their highest degree of education. Even if a student who has not finished high school is able to secure a job, the annual wage they can expect to earn is about $10,000 less than an individual who has graduated from high school. 

Strong and supportive elementary and secondary school institutions are essential to meet the future demands of employers, as the next generation of entrepreneurs and job creators are incubated in our K-Grade 12 systems. Furthermore, the quality of a regional workforce is a key factor that influences overall economic growth and dynamism, rendering education a vital component of overall economic development planning. The graph above shows that populations across the country face different challenges by geography, along with a myriad of other factors, and solutions will have to be equally as diverse.

For more information and case studies of high poverty schools, visit the full report conducted by American Public Media here: http://www.apmreports.org/story/2016/09/01/high-school-poverty-graduation



1. Data Source for Graph: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data (CCD), "Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey," 2013–14. *Includes students enrolled in schools that did not report free or reduced-price lunch eligibility 

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