For students, poverty is more complicated than our categories

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I was driving from Roseville to St. Cloud a week and a half ago when the big thunderstorms hit. Twice, I got off the highway to park somewhere safe because I didn’t feel comfortable on the road. The following weekend I was heading down to Rochester and it was raining again. This time, the rain was less intense and I didn’t need to stop. Today I’m going to talk about how poverty’s effect on student outcomes is like the rain.

First, a graph:

(Data from National Center for Education Statistics)

First off, yes this is about Wisconsin. Minnesota didn’t meet the reporting requirements for the reduced price (RP) category, so I went with our next door neighbors. Their scores for other student groups are similar enough to ours that I’m comfortable using this data.

The most common way we talk about poverty in education is by looking at the number of students receiving free or reduced price (FRP) lunch through the National School Lunch program [PDF]. Students who qualify are considered “poor” while students who don’t are considered, bluntly, “not poor.” This makes it easy to calculate achievement gaps the same way we do for race.

The thing is, poverty’s more complicated than that. Thinking of it as a binary system – poor or not – is kind of liking assessing driving safety by whether it’s raining or not. Driving in clear weather is almost always safer than in the rain, but driving in a torrential downpour is much riskier than driving in a light drizzle.

To qualify for free lunch, students’ families need to be at or below 130% of the national poverty line. Students between 130% and 185% of the poverty line qualify for reduced price lunch. To make that clearer, a student is eligible for free lunch if they come from a family of four making $29,055 or less. They’re eligible for reduced price lunch if they come from a family of four making between $29,056 and $41,348. That makes for big differences in lifestyle and, as we can see, academic outcomes.

This is true above the FRP lunch cutoff, too – rich students tend to do better than middle class students – but our data around income is sadly lacking in nuance. This should be a reminder to all policymakers that poverty is at the root of many problems in education.