In America, what you earn depends largely on your success in school. Unfortunately, your success in school depends largely on what your parents earn. It's an intergenerational Catch 22 that's at the heart of modern poverty.
Keep that in mind while looking at the monstrously depressing map up above, which comes courtesy of a new report by the Southern Education Foundation. In 2011, there were 17 states where at least half of all public school students came from low-income families, up from just four in 2000. Across the whole country, 48 percent of kids qualified as low income, up from 38 percent a decade earlier.
To be crystal clear, the researchers were not analyzing poverty rates per se. Rather, they tracked at the percentage of children in each state who received free or reduced school lunches, which are only available to students whose families earn below 185 percent of the poverty line. For a family of four, that amounted to about $41,000 in 2011—a figure that might feel dire in New York City, but less so in New Mexico. In the end, we are talking about families poor enough to get some amount of federal food help.
More troubling than the strict number of low-income students, however, was the long-term trend. As I noted up above, the number of states handing out cheap and free meals to more than half their students quadrupled in ten years, a point that this Washington Post illustration hammers home vividly. American public school students are becoming poorer.
The reasons why are both complicated and familiar. In an interview with the Post, one of the study's authors pointed to the "2008 recession, immigration and a high birthrate among low-income families," as factors. The changes were happening before the economy collapsed, but the bust exacerbated them.
I think there are a few quick points to take away from these numbers.
First, whenever you hear about "America's failing schools," remember these maps. Poverty—or in many cases, near poverty—is the 50 pound backpack dragging down U.S. students.
Second, policy makers and pundits often get worked up about our mediocre performances on international standardized tests. But the reality is that there are vast variations between our students, who are divided by geography and socio-economic class in ways quite unlike children in countries such as Japan or Finland. If schools are still, in a sense, factories, then Massachusetts districts get much better raw material to work with than Texas districts. Suburbs get a leg up on cities. And their results often reflect it. Trying to capture our gaping range of educational outcomes in a single ranking misses those nuances.
And finally, the worst thing about these numbers may be that they're a glimpse of the future. Like I said up above, students from low-income families tend to end up parents of low-income families. And on it goes.