For the first time in at least fifty years, more than half of all U.S. public school students come from low-income families, a research brief from the Southern Education Foundation finds.
Based on an analysis of 2013 data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics, the brief, Low Income Students Now a Majority in the Nation's Public Schools (6 pages, PDF), found that 51 percent of pre-K-12 students in the nation's public schools were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. The analysis also found that in forty states, low-income children made up no less than 40 percent of the public school population and constituted a majority of public school students in twenty-one states — thirteen of which were in the South and six in the West. Mississippi had the highest proportion of low-income students (71 percent), followed by New Mexico (68 percent) and Louisiana (65 percent), while New Hampshire (27 percent), North Dakota (30 percent), and Vermont (36 percent) had the lowest proportion. The share of students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches reached the 51 percent level in the South in 2006 and, in 2013, stood at 57 percent, well above the percentage in the West (51 percent), the Midwest (44 percent), and the Northeast (42 percent).
"The fact is, we've had growing inequality in the country for many years," Southern Education Foundation president Kent McGuire told the Washington Post. "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."