If free and reduced lunch data can’t reliably identify poverty, what can?

Students enrolled in free and reduced lunch programs may no longer be a reliable proxy for poverty. (AJC File)

Many posters on the blog have questioned the validity of using free and reduced lunch statistics to gauge the number of low-income students in a school, maintaining FRL is an imprecise and unreliable surrogate. Some posters contend it overestimates low-income students, while others say it undercounts them.

In a new report for the Brookings Institution, researcher Matthew M. Chingos says FRL data cannot serve as a proxy for poverty because more and more schools now offer free lunch to all their students.

“The use of FRL for policy and research purposes is quickly unravelling, due in large part to policy changes enacted by Congress in 2010 that expand ‘community eligibility,’ which allows schools with at least 40 percent of students identified as eligible for FRL to provide free lunches to all of their students and eliminate paper applications going forward. As a result, many schools will be unable to report student achievement for their FRL students,” he writes.

Why is that a loss? Because states are still obligated to report the performance of economically disadvantaged students, who historically lag more affluent peers. So, there has to be a way to identify such students. The question is also important to researchers who focus on how schools can improve educational outcomes for children from low-income households.

“New measures could include existing data on participation in means-tested programs, such as food stamps and Medicaid, or direct measures of socioeconomic status collected by states through new links between administrative data systems,” says Chingos.

“More direct measures of socioeconomic status could also be collected by states through their longitudinal data systems. Family incomes could be obtained from state administrative records, such as unemployment insurance systems. More ambitiously, Congress could authorize the Internal Revenue Service to work with states to link their student-level data to family income data that would identify disadvantaged students, but be sufficiently coarse to protect privacy,” he writes.

Anyone have suggestions on how to get an accurate sense of how many poor kids are in a school amid growing concerns over student data privacy?

 

 

 

 

 

Reader Comments 0

65 comments
eulb
eulb

I am not convinced that the information being sought -- reliable financial data identifying low income families -- exists in this state's databases. Certainly not this state's medicaid and unemployment insurance records.  So focusing on those records doesn't make much sense to me.

Linking IRS data to school-level data makes better sense, but not a whole lot better.  If a child's family hasn't filed a tax return for a few years, should the school assume it's because their income was so low, they were not required to file?  That might be the truth, but not necessarily.  

Why do I think the state's databases are unlikely to hold the info that's being sought?  Well, here's my experience with one family's data gaps:

For several years, I've been friends with a local, legally-immigrated family from Southeast Asia. They are a low-income family, for sure.  The father is a naturalized US citizen and can speak English, but his English literacy skills are too poor to read written instructions or fill out forms so they never applied for food stamps, SSI, or other assistance.  With frugal habits, the family got by very well for years on his small paycheck.  Result?  Our state has virtually no data on this family.  

I had no idea how little data existed on this family until they suffered a true a financial crisis.  The father became very seriously ill, racked up big medical bills, and could not work for about 6 months.  I did my best to help the family apply for various assistance programs.  I helped them fill out the forms, but couldn't dredge up the necessary supporting documents.  Most of their aid applications were denied. Temporary food stamp assistance was granted, but that's all.  No unemployment benefits or other income assistance.

Keep in mind that this low-income family is stable and settled, not transient.  Their children attended public school for all 12 years. Family members are U.S. citizens with SS numbers.  They have remained in the same home for years. Income is below poverty level, but how would a school find that data? If you tapped into Georgia's unemployment insurance records, medicaid, or SSI, you'd never find this family at all. They would be invisible.  

If that family's data doesn't exist, what's the chance that reliable data would be found for an "undocumented" student.  Or a student whose parents do not live together nor get along well enough to share income information with one another.  Or a student whose family is just too chaotic to maintain good financial records for any length of time.  Imagine the adults moving frequently and the child sometimes sleeping at Mom's place, sometimes, Dad's place, sometimes Grandma's place, sometimes Uncle's place.  What's the likelihood that our state's database contains reliable financial data about that child's socioeconomic condition?

The only way I can think of to get reliable financial data for any student is for a real, live person to meet with the family and slog through whatever records they've got, ask them hard questions, and then help them obtain additional records from the IRS, state agencies, banks, etc.  I would not want to see school employees charged with that task.

newsphile
newsphile

The elephant in the room:  parents of all socio-economic levels who ignore their parenting responsibilities are the problem. 

trifecta_
trifecta_

The real accomplishment would be remove poverty as a knee-jerk excuse for failing public schools.

JBBrown1968
JBBrown1968

The real reason education is failing is the adults! The agenda dictates kids  are black, white and other! Until they are all labeled kids there will never be any improvement.

class80olddog
class80olddog

The Georgia Lottery already provides funds for free Pre-K programs.

class80olddog
class80olddog

Since the consensus of the PC crowd is that poverty causes poor achievement in schools, the solution would be to give each poor family $50,000 per year.  Then there is no more poverty and you would see that grades would immediately skyrocket, graduation rates would be 100% and all children would be accepted and go to college?  Don't think so?   Neither do I.  If you give these families the money, they would end up just as poor as they are now, probably with worse nutrition for the kids.  To paraphrase, IT AIN'T THE MONEY, STUPID!

taylor48
taylor48

@class80olddog Studies have shown that kids who grow up in poverty (whether they are black or white) come to school with lower vocabulary levels.  In addition, kids in poverty come from homes where there are higher levels of lead.  We've all heard about what happens to the brain development of children when they are exposed to lead.  Often children are malnourished, which also causes developmental delays.  So, while your $50,000 might help, there are some issues that can't be fixed quite as easily.  In Flint, for example, the brain damage that has occurred can't be fixed by giving the parents money.  It will require funding in the school system to give those children the interventions that they will need to succeed.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

The school system where I worked is about to go on the 100% program.  They might as well--75%-80% qualify.  Of the kids not already on FARPL, most bring their lunches anyway.  They will not accept school meals, even free, in all likelihood. 16% of the schools' population is Latino (which is not a race) and most of them are on free lunch and certainly qualify.  I wouldn't hesitate to say NONE of their parents are on "disability." The other 85% are white, and a very high percentage of them are on disability of one kind or another, and/or get many other kinds of help.  There is a very small middle class here among the parents of school-aged children, made up mostly of teachers. (The one percent unaccounted-for are mostly biracial children.)


Financial poverty is real, and, in my experience here, there is little of the $100 sneakers and special fingernails and hairstyles among their parents of which many posters speak.


There is also poverty of spirit, poverty of ambition, poverty of grit, as mentioned here by others.  This is the poverty that cannot be measured easily, and is just as sure a predictor of student achievement. Some of the posters here allude to that when they tell of how they surmounted growing up financially poor.


One personal hangup I will mention here:  "Disability" needs to be examined from a policy standpoint.  For example, if your old job required you to lift 50 pounds, and now you cannot, you should be trained for other work that does not required that lifting, and expected to get a job.  Furthermore, IMHO, if you are "disabled" but still able to impregnate or carry a child, you are not fully disabled.  I'm not talking about being unable to be intimate, but if you are unable to work (support yourself and your family) because you are disabled you should lose your "disabled" status if you decide to have additional children.  Too many of the current "disability" recipients are multigenerational--mama was, daddy was, I am, my children are... There should be no disability checks to the parents of disabled children, who are eligible for medical care through specific programs.


To the original question--I don't think the government needs to be any more intrusive and data-collecting than it already is.  Even if a system or school becomes 100% free lunch, parents can still be required to submit the application form, and verification should continue.  

Starik
Starik

At the start of every year require a sworn statement of the size of the household and household income. 

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@Starik Recepients already sign that the information they give is accurate, under penalty of law.

newsphile
newsphile

@Starik In our current society, I can't imagine many folks being truthful. 

Milo
Milo

Tip: Check the kid's shoes.

class80olddog
class80olddog

Yes, there is a CORRELATION between income and achievement, but it is NOT CAUSATION.  Being poor does not cause one to be a bad student.  Usually, it is the same bad decisions the parents make that make them poor that make their children bad students.  Children learn what they see from their parents.  If their mother is unmarried, pregnant at 15, drops out of school, and thinks school makes you act "too white", what do you think her kids will grow up to be?  More money does not solve the problems.  More discipline, more attention to punishing bad attendance, less (or no) social promotion.  That is the ticket to improvement.  I will recount again my personal story of growing up poor but with two parents who both pushed us to do well in school.  My mother only had an eighth grade education, but she taught me to read before I entered the first grade.  If I got a spanking at school (and told them about it), I would get another at home.  If my teacher called my parents about a discipline problem, my mother was down there in an instant and you better bet it got corrected.  And if you had ever offered my parents food stamps or free lunch, my mother would have slapped you.  We were "poor but proud". 

Another comment
Another comment

I agree! I was also the child of a high school dropout. My parents remained married. My father wouldn't admit that he was not the businessman that my Grandfather was. So he stubbornly held on to the business his father started in the 50's. He didn't have the push or the pivot necessary to suceed as things changed in the sixties. So we were very poor as a result. Yet my family never every would have applied for free lunch nor ford stamps. Even after a diasater declaration that did not require income requirements ( and every rich person in town accepted, I worked at the local grocery store so I saw who redeemed them. ) my parents would not accept food stamps. The only financial aid program they ever took was the PELL grant, work study and student loans for each child's college.

I remember finding out how poor we were when in college comparing with a friend the income on the Financial aid form. My family of 6 had an income of $5,200 and my friends family had 7 and they had $75,000. He was complaining that he didn't get a work study job. When I saw the $75,000 even with one more kid I said your family is rich and doesn't need it.

redweather
redweather

@class80olddog Do we really want to add corporal punishment to the list of things school principals and teachers are expected to do? I don't.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@redweather @class80olddog Somebody has to do something EFFECTIVE.  Teachers and principals used to do these things.  Their lives would probably be much better if they were instituted.  Teachers' hands are just tied now - they can only use ineffective means of discipline like ISS and OSS.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@Wascatlady @class80olddog @redweather Parents used to be a part of school discipline, not antagonistic as they are now.  If you got a paddling at school, the parents supported that.  Now they would be threatening the school with a lawsuit.  If a child had to stay after school, the parent supported that, and the child caught h*ll at home for inconveniencing the parent (I know by first hand experience).  I also know that several times I had to write a hundred times on the blackboard "I will not talk in class" - you want to tell me why that is not allowed any more?  It is strenuous physical labor that a child is not anxious to repeat. 

Courtney2
Courtney2

Free & Reduced should be done away with. 90% of the kids on it are fake.  The schools get money to make sure MORE kids qualify.  What a scam!  

taylor48
taylor48

@Another comment If you've seen that, you've witnessed a crime.  I'm assuming you reported it to the authorities? 

Another comment
Another comment

Exactly! I have witnessed school administrators hand these forms out to black and Hispanic families and either tell them leave it blank and sign or put a number below X .

class80olddog
class80olddog

@Courtney2 So do the parents of these "free and reduced lunch" kids get food stamps?  What do they spend that money on?

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@Another comment Please do your civic duty and report these principals!  They are discriminating against the white families!

eulb
eulb

@Wascatlady   I have seen school administrators do the same thing, except without discriminating.  They were not trying to help particular students receive free lunches. Food was not even the the point.  The point was to make sure the whole school qualified for Title 1 funds.  I don't know how that works, but that's the reason they gave for urging all parents to fill out "free lunch" forms.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@eulb @Wascatlady Because if kids charge their meals, the school is ultimately stuck with the bill. Parents refuse to pay and nothing can be done, at least at the elementary level.  For a time at my school they gave the charging kids a simple sandwich, milk, and a piece of fruit. Parents paid up or signed up for FARPL after a few times of that, but it was discontinued because it was "punishing the kids" for their parents' lack of responsibility.


I had a kid one year that charged lunch and breakfast every day and ended up owing over $100.  Nothing was done. He came late every day that he attended (20-40 minutes) and nothing was done about that either.  Sometimes I wonder if school systems are "interpreting" the rules correctly!


Schools push parents to sign up for FARPL if there  is any chance they could qualify so the schools don't get stuck with the bill. It can mount up to thousands of dollars a year for a school.  I have NEVER heard a parent urged to do what "another comment", above, says.  However, with our non-English-speaking parents, they can bring their information and a translator will help them fill it out.  I have also been asked to help illiterate white parents by reading the forms to them.


And the Title 1 thing is a reason too, especially in an area where there are so few middle class families.

JBBrown1968
JBBrown1968

@Courtney2 Damn you people are sick! Regardless of situation at home these kids need to be feed. Free and reduced food is a good thing! Why don't you people botch about the millions of dollars of funds for buildings and football fields and too many administrators. That's the real waste!

My wife teaches school and we spend a lot of money out of pocket for pencils notebooks, shoes and a list that runs long......as do many of her friends that teach!

FredinDeKalb
FredinDeKalb

@Courtney2 

Perhaps your frustration should be directed to those that are financially befitting from the FRL program. It is interesting that most of the anger is directed to those had nothing to do with starting the program.

eulb
eulb

@JBBrown1968 

Settle down.  Poor students will be fed.  FRL is here to stay.  It's just the application forms that are going away. 

With those forms disappearing, a new, reliable source of socioeconomic data is needed for educational (not nutritional) purposes.  Please propose a solution.

Here's one idea:  Require teachers and other school personnel to call and cajole their students' parents into gathering and submitting copies of their tax returns, pay stubs, disability payments, etc.  If that strikes you as an outrageous waste of your wife's instructional time and skills, please propose something else.

DumbandDumber
DumbandDumber

APS already spends much more per student in 'disadvantaged areas' without result, but actually feeding the students seems like a worthy goal vs. layers and layers of bureaucracy that most programs generate.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@DumbandDumber I have been told that Free and Reduced Lunches do not come out of the local school budget, but are entirely paid by the Feds - if true, I support feeding the kids.  I do think, however, that the amount should be deducted from their food stamp allotment.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@Wascatlady @class80olddog @DumbandDumber From a article about this book - "The author concludes that someday, low-wage workers will rise up and demand to be treated fairly, and when that day comes everyone will be better off."  Sounds like - "Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains, you have a world to gain".  Now I wonder where that came from (been there, done that, it failed).

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@class80olddog @DumbandDumber Actually, as it was explained to me, the school gets MORE money for FARPL meals per student than it gets from paying students.  That helps pay the people who prepare and serve the food.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@class80olddog @DumbandDumber Check into what food stamps will actually buy.  The amount given is enough for beans and peanut butter every day, but those who claim it alone buys lobster and steak are self-deluded.  It does not provide enough even limited calories for an entire month.


Nickeled and Dimed is a good book to read, among others.

FredinDeKalb
FredinDeKalb

@Wascatlady @class80olddog 

This is true.  Schools with higher FRL populations tend to subsidize schools that have a small FRL population, at least within a school district.  All of this also factors into the funding allocations for students in a school district. Remember that equation simply divides the budget by the number of students.  Students in wealthier attendance zones *benefit* from this equation.

newsphile
newsphile

@class80olddog @DumbandDumber I'm always amused by the number of people who think that federal funds equal free money.  All of us who pay federal taxes supply those federal funds.  Nothing is "free"; someone is paying for it.

Your Teacher
Your Teacher

What's the purpose of labeling these kids as "poor" anyway? Aside from the stipulations for Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL) and subsidized exam costs in AP classes - I can't imagine why this matters.

redweather
redweather

@Your Teacher Many studies have shown a clear link between affluence (or the lack thereof) and academic achievement. This is valuable information. We need to make sure the necessary resources are going where they are most needed.

someonesdad
someonesdad

@redweather @Your Teacher OK, so poor kids perform worse, on the  average, than wealthy kids.  What are you  going to  do about it?  We already know that giving more money to schools is a waste.  Lack of discipline  is the problem.  What do you plan to do about lack of discipline?

Infraredguy
Infraredguy

@someonesdad The Liberals plan to do nothing about discipline, they would rather throw more tax money at the problem and claim they did their part, aka LBJ and paying more for each illegitimate kid by welfare mothers and the current " Tax credit " ripoff 

class80olddog
class80olddog

@redweather @someonesdad @Your Teacher Just don't use ISS and OSS - that is like throwing Brer Rabbit in the briar patch.  Try some of the "tried and true" (but not PC) punishments that were used in the sixties: spanking (for young kids), staying after school, writing sentences 100 times (that one might be impossible). 

Milo
Milo

@redweather @Your Teacher

EVERY study has shown a clear link between ethnicity and academic achievement.  But this is not valuable information, for some reason. 

L_D
L_D

@someonesdad @redweather @Your Teacher and why do you think giving more money to schools is a waste?  Where's your proof? In Georgia, the state K-12 budget still is not fully funded (and hasn't been for almost 15 years).  Yet, teachers, principals, and systems are still doing their job and students are showing academic gains.

You can't chalk everything up to lack of discipline - how about lack of health care, lack of housing, lack of stability, lack of access to tutors, internet, resources?  Until you've worked or volunteered in a school with a large impoverished population, don't make assumptions.