By Barbara Ray
We’ve reached a new (and disturbing) threshold. In 2011, according to “The New Majority,” by the Southern Education Foundation, approximately one-half (48 percent) of all public school children were eligible for free or reduced price lunch, often a proxy for low income if not poverty.
Take a minute. One-half.
We’re used to seeing maps of red states and blue states as a kind of shorthand for our nation’s divide, culturally and politically. The Great Plains and the South are red, the coasts are blue. While that map captures the divisions between political parties, the map of low-income school children has another message. There is no divide when it comes to low-income children. School children everywhere are in need.
Source: Washington Post, October 16, 2013
“We have an education system that continues to assume that most of our students are middle class and have independent resources outside the schools in order to support their education,” Steve Suitts, vice president of the Southern Education Foundation and an author of the study, told the Washington Post. “The trends and facts belie that assumption. We can’t continue to educate kids on an assumption that is 20 years out of date. We simply have to reshape our educational system.”
Another outdated notion is that most of these kids live in the inner city. Fully 40 percent of students in the suburbs are eligible for free or reduced price meals, according to the report. New Mexico leads the nation with 72 percent of its suburban student body eligible for free or reduced price meals. California’s suburban public schools are 51 percent low-income.
As Confronting Suburban Poverty in America points out, among the 100 largest metro areas in 2009-2010, approximately 3 million more students in the suburbs were enrolled in free or reduced price lunch program than in cities.
To be eligible, a family of four in 2012 could earn no more than $42,643 a year to qualify for reduced price meals, and a family of four could earn no more than $29,965 to be eligible for free meals. The national median household income was $51,371 in 2012.
Denver offers a good example of this increasingly suburban phenomenon. Mile High Connects, a regional collaborative in Denver, reports that while the city’s public schools still have one of the highest rates of free and reduced price meals, the suburban districts are catching up.
According to the Mile High Connects report, Aurora, Adams County District 50, Mapleton District 1, Sheridan Public Schools, and Englewood Public Schools all had a greater than 20 percentage point increase in free and reduced price lunch participation between 2000 and 2010. During the 2000s, the overall poor population in the suburbs outside Denver and Aurora rose 138 percent.
Homelessness among students, including suburban students, is another disturbing (strike that, shameful) milestone. The National Center for Homeless Education notes that US public schools reported a record number of homeless students in the 2011-12 school year: 1,168,354 children enrolled in U.S preschools and K-12 schools. That’s a stunning 72 percent increase since the beginning of the recession.
And here again, homelessness is no longer a city problem. Homeless advocates told the Chicago Tribune that, “The problem often is dismissed as an urban one, but thousands of homeless people seek emergency overnight shelter across Chicago’s suburbs each year.”
In Lakewood, an inner-ring suburb in Cleveland, homelessness is also on the rise. Lakewood Community Services Center, which offers emergency and supportive housing assistance for residents at risk of homelessness, experienced a 140 percent increase in the number of people needing assistance between 2008 and 2012.
Suburbs are struggling to meet this rising need. Historically considered an inner-city problem, poverty has not been on the agenda of many suburban municipalities. As a result, vulnerable suburban families often have few services or supports to turn to.
In many cases, schools have become the canary in the coal mine when it comes to rising suburban poverty. They are often a hub for delivering services, including free and reduced price lunches for children, and frequently are the only recognized resource for social services in the community, and a place to which kids and parents will turn when their families are in need.
Mapleton School District in suburban Denver, for example, provides an array of supports and services for its growing population of low-income students, including hosting a food and clothing pantry, dentistry services, and mental health services for the students. Resources are tight and have not kept pace with rising need, and the district struggles to maintain these services and the added demands on staff they create.
If they are to meet the growing need, suburbs must bring these individual programs to scale. Doing so requires improving systems and networks, consolidating and coordinating efforts, and promoting organizations that get the job done.
One policy that might help that process is community applications for free and reduced price meals, which is coming to all states in 2014. Rather than asking parents to fill out eligibility paperwork, the program allows schools that served a substantial percentage of their students free and reduced price meals in the prior year to serve free breakfasts and lunches to all students school-wide. In addition, any school district can use this option as well. The district may implement community eligibility in one school, a group of schools, or district-wide.
Collaboration and building capacity on the ground in the suburbs must continue if we are to ensure that children, whether they live in the suburbs or the city, do not have to contend with a growling stomach. That’s something the nation, whether red state or blue state, can get behind.