What’s the best way to change the number of people living in poverty? Use a different definition of poverty. In education, some people are suggesting we use a different definition than we have in the past, and it’s an argument we should take seriously.
The current proxy for low-income status used in education is participation in the Department of Agriculture’s free and reduced-price lunch program. Participation in that program is itself based on where families fall relative to the federal poverty line (already a potentially problematic definition of poverty). Families with income up to 130 percent of the federal poverty line (just over $31,000 for a family of four) qualify for free lunch, while those between 130 percent and 185 percent (slightly more than $42,000 for a family of four) qualify for reduced-price lunch.
This obviously covers quite a range of lifestyles, and that’s before noting that the definition doesn’t change based on cost of living, except for the states of Alaska and Hawaii. It’s also not clear that a bulk assessment of family income is the best way to understand a student’s socioeconomic status with respect to their experience of and performance in school.
Education Week recently described the current thinking of a working group including representatives from the federal Department of Education and eight states. The group has been exploring alternatives to the subsidized lunch proxy, paying attention to other family attributes like parental education as well as contextual information about socioeconomic status in a student’s community, neighborhood, and school.
For practical purposes, this rethinking of poverty measures comes at a good time. The Department of Agriculture has successfully piloted a change to the lunch program that lets schools serve more students without going through the program’s sign-up process. That means our data on lunches is about to get a lot fuzzier, so we’ll need new definitions of poverty and socioeconomic status anyway.
While some of these discussions tend towards deep wonkery, they’re very important in shaping how we understand the interaction between socioeconomic status and educational equity. Minnesotan policymakers and analysts would do well to start considering alternative measures that help us serve students appropriately based on their needs.