Majority of Nation's Public School Students Now Low-Income

Atlanta, Georgia
Published March 3, 2015

The Southern Education Foundation's 2015 research bulletin reports that for the first time in over fifty years, a majority of schoolchildren attending the nation's public schools come from low-income families. "A New Majority" documents that in four out of every five states, low-income students comprised 40 percent or more of all public schoolchildren. In 2013, 50 percent or more of the public schoolchildren in twenty-one states were eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches, a benefit available only to families living in poverty or near-poverty.

The report further documents that most of the states with high rates of low-income students were in the South and West. Thirteen of the twenty-one states with a majority of low-income students were located in the South, and six others were in the West. Mississippi led the nation with the highest rate: ­71 percent, almost three out of every four public school children in Mississippi, were low-income. The nation's second highest rate was found in New Mexico, where 68 percent of all public school students were low-income.

This defining moment in enrollment in US public education comes as a consequence of a steadily growing trend across several decades. In 1989, less than 32 percent of the nation's public school students were low-income. By 2000, the national rate had increased to over 38 percent.

Percent of Low Income Students in U.S. Public Schools 2013. Map and Data courtesy of Steve Suitts and the Southern Education Foundation.
Percent of Low Income Students in US Public Schools 2013. Map and Data courtesy of Steve Suitts and the Southern Education Foundation.

The implications of this trend are far-reaching. It indicates persisting economic hardship for a large number of families with school-age children, signaling that children who usually have the largest educational needs often receive the least support, and are now a majority in the nation's public schools.

The South and the nation are today a part of a new global economy that requires higher skills and knowledge from all who seek a decent living and a good life. People and policymakers must realize that their future and their grandchildren's future are inextricably bound to the success or failure of low-income students. This trend strongly suggests that little or nothing will change for the better if schools and communities continue to postpone addressing the primary question of education in America today: what does it take and what will be done to provide low-income students with a good chance to succeed in public schools? It is a question of how, not where, to improve the education of a new majority of students.

The problems and needs of low-income students remain a matter of fairness, but they are also much more. The success or failure of these children in the public schools will determine the nation's future educational potential. Without improving educational support for low-income students—without effectively addressing the problems of poverty and low-income—the trend of the last few decades will be prologue for a nation not at risk, but in decline.

About the Author

Steve Suitts is senior fellow at the Southern Education Foundation.

Recommended Resources

Text

Suitts, Steve. "A New Majority Research Bulletin: Low Income Students Now a Majority in the Nation's Public Schools." Southern Education Foundation (2015). http://www.southerneducation.org/Our-Strategies/Research-and-Publications/New-Majority-Diverse-Majority-Report-Series/A-New-Majority-2015-Update-Low-Income-Students-Now.

———. "Update A New Majority: Low Income Students in the South and Nation." Southern Education Foundation (2013). http://www.southerneducation.org/News-and-Events/posts/April-2014/Juvenile-Justice-Education-Programs-in-the-United-aspx.aspx.

———. "A New Majority: Low Income Students in the South's Public Schools." Southern Education Foundation (2007). http://www.southerneducation.org/Our-Strategies/Research-and-Publications/New-Majority-Diverse-Majority-Report-Series/A-New-Majority-Low-Income-Students-in-the-South-s.aspx.

Related Southern Spaces Publications

Suitts, Steve. "Crisis of the New Majority: Low-Income Students in the South's Public Schools." Southern Spaces, April 16, 2008. http://southernspaces.org/2008/crisis-new-majority-low-income-students-souths-public-schools.

———. "The Worst of Times: Children in Extreme Poverty in the South and Nation." Southern Spaces, June 29, 2010. http://southernspaces.org/2010/worst-times-children-extreme-poverty-south-and-nation.

doi:10.18737/M7903G

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