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To measure poverty, states look beyond free lunch

Amy Scott Jun 23, 2015
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For years, the federal school meals program has been one of the most powerful forces in education. Not just because it feeds kids, but because the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals has been the main way schools measure poverty. That number, in turn, can impact everything from school funding levels to accountability programs. 

But that’s changing. Massachusetts has introduced a new way of measuring poverty in its schools. Starting next school year, students will be considered “economically disadvantaged,” not according to their school lunch status, but if their families participate in programs like food stamps, welfare and Medicaid. According to the new data released today, schools look a lot less poor.

“It’s about two-thirds of the number of students that we had before,” says Jeff Wulfson, deputy commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Wulfson says Massachusetts had to come up with a different way of measuring poverty. It’s one of 49 states that now let high-poverty districts feed all students at no charge, rather than collecting applications for the school meals program.

Massachusetts’ new measurement could more be more accurate, says Zoe Neuberger, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in that it no longer requires schools to collect income data from families. That can be a challenge, “particularly with middle or high school students, because the children are embarrassed about receiving the meals,” she says.

Federal poverty programs are also better-equipped to collect and audit income information, she says. They have offices full of caseworkers whose job it is to assess family income and household composition,” she says. “Schools are not set up to do that. Nor should they be.” 

Other states are adopting similar ways of measuring poverty, says Michael Griffith, a senior policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States. He worries the new standards could miss the working poor — families who earn too much to qualify for food stamps, but not enough to pay full price in the cafeteria.

“They are not poor by the definition of some of these programs, but they are clearly low-income and they are struggling,” he says.

Wulfson says Massachusetts plans to create new funding formulas so that high-poverty schools aren’t short-changed.