More Money, Less Liberty, Impoverished Education

A new study from the Southern Education Foundation finds that half of all public school students now live in poverty. The poverty measure they use is eligibility for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, part of the National School Lunch Program. According to study authors:

The latest NCES [U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics] data indicates that 48 percent of all public school children across the nation were eligible for free or reduced lunch in 2011. The rate of low income students in the South was 53 percent – the highest rate among the regions of the nation. For the first time in recent history, at least half of the public school students in the West were low income. In 2010 the rate was 51 percent. In 2011, it remained 50 percent of all public school children. The Midwest had the next highest rate, 44 percent, and the Northeast had a rate of 40 percent. (p. 3)

Reaction to the report has been swift—and harsh. Diane Ravitch, for example, calls such findings a national shame. She blames various education reform efforts of the past few decades for draining resources from cash-strapped government schools. While I concur with Ravitch’s criticism of what she calls the “educational-industrial complex,” which pours hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars into government-favored testing, textbook, and curriculum companies, her “solution” calling for more money for the schooling system is about as impoverished as the poverty statistics she bandies about.

To see how well the more money plan has worked out, see these handy charts from the Cato Institute’s Andrew Coulson. Spoiler alert: reading, math, and science scores for American 17-year-olds have remained essentially flat since 1970, but over the same period the cost of K-12 schooling for those students has increased 200 percent in real terms, from $55,000 to $165,000 each.

But let’s take a closer look at the measure the Southern Education Foundation uses to gauge child poverty. Turns out it’s as faulty as the notion that more money means better results from a monopoly schooling system.

Students qualifying for free meals come from families at 130 percent of the poverty level ($30,615 for a family of four); while students eligible for reduced-price meals come from families at 185 percent of the poverty level ($43,568 for a family of four).

According to the latest data from the Census Bureau, nationwide 24 percent of American families with school age children are below the 130 percent poverty level, while 36 percent are below the 185 percent poverty level.

At the national level, then, eligibility rates for federally subsidized school meals seem way out of whack with actual poverty rates—a pattern that holds regionally.

According to Census data, the below 185 percent family poverty rate for the South is 39 percent—so how do 53 percent of children qualify for free or reduced-price meals?

And what about the West, where apparent poverty levels are at historic highs? Well, the Census Bureau finds that the below 185 percent family poverty rate is 37 percent—a far cry from the 50 percent of school children eligible for subsidized meals.

Similarly, while 44 percent of school children from the Midwest and 40 percent from the Northeast qualify for free and reduced-price meals, Census data show only around one-third of families in these regions is below the 185 percent poverty level (34 percent and 32 percent, respectively).

A leading reason for these inflated figures is that the federal meal program is bloated with fraud—as recent examples in Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Chicago illustrate. Lying about family income is rampant, and income verification is minimal at best.

The percentage of school children receiving free and reduced-price meals has increased nearly five-fold from 15 percent in 1969 to more than 68 percent in 2012, according to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. Yet over the same period the percentages of families with school age children living below the poverty level grew from 11 percent to 18 percent, according to the Census Bureau (Table 4).

This means the percentage of children receiving federally subsidized meals now outpaces actual poverty rates by four to one.

No child should go hungry. Yet the free and reduced-price lunch program is a prime example of good intentions going awry when government bureaucracies step in—along with their inherent drive for self-preservation and expansion.

Findings from the Southern Education Foundation are fueling renewed calls for what amounts to a Great Society way of thinking when it comes to schooling and should be resisted at all costs. As former Chancellor of New York City schools Joel Klein explained:

Consider one of the most cherished mantras in public education today—“We’ll never fix education until we fix poverty.” This lets the school system off the hook: “We can’t do too much with these poor kids, so don’t blame us (but give us more money).” Sure, money, a stable family, and strong values typically make educating a child easier. But we also now know that, keeping those things constant, we can get dramatically different outcomes with the same kid, based on his or her education.


Today, more than 245,000 low-income, special needs, and other disadvantaged students nationwide are attending non-government schools of their parents’ choice thanks to 32 scholarship programs enacted in 16 states and the District of Columbia.

The most scientifically rigorous research spanning decades shows that parental choice in education improves the academic outcomes of the very students government schooling boosters say are un-teachable (including higher standardized test scores, graduation rates, college attendance and completion rates)—at a fraction of the cost.

Critics such as Ravitch insist such programs are an expensive distraction because they’re not expansive enough to help all students. Actual parents think otherwise.

In spite of detractors’ best efforts to litigate, limit, and de-fund parental choice programs, student enrollment has grown more than four-fold in the past decade alone. Trends such as this one have status-quo defenders hanging on by an intellectual thread.

Maybe that’s why they’re so eager to grasp any statistics that come their way—no matter how empty and inflated they may be.


Vicki E, Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the author of the Independent book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.
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