Shame on the Raleigh News & Observer. A headline story on October 30th declared, “South’s schools swell with poor kids” and later stated, “49 percent of the state’s school children live below the poverty line” was irresponsible journalism.
A careful review reveals the reporting to be inaccurate and the facts to be incorrect. The story highlights a report by the Southern Education Foundation (SEB) that concludes low-income students now comprise a majority of students in the south. SEB defined low income as being eligible for the federal reduced-price school lunch program. Any student whose family is at 185 percent of the federal poverty guidelines – currently $31,765 for a family of three or $38,203 for a family of four – is eligible for the reduced-price lunch program. The News & Observer carelessly – and incorrectly – published the 49 percent figure as the number of students living below the poverty line. This is not true nor does it accurately reflect the SEB report.
Putting aside disagreements over the newspaper’s reporting, SEB’s claim is a surprising assertion and warrants further discussion. Are 49 percent of North Carolina school students really classified as low income? Using 2006 data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Community Population Survey (CPS) our estimates found only 36 percent of North Carolina households with school-age children were eligible for reduced-price school lunch. Additionally, using the same 2006 CPS data, our estimates revealed only 14 percent of North Carolina households with school-age children had incomes below the federal poverty line.
This disagreement underscores the importance of understanding the terms of the policy debate. Although we may think the terms poor, low-income and poverty are interchangeable, they are not. Poor is a relative term, used to compare groups. Low income usually refers to families or persons whose incomes are on the low end of personal or per capita income. Increasingly, the term is defined as anywhere from 100 to 200 percent of the poverty level. And, poverty implies incomes that fall below a government definition of a minimally adequate standard of living. The terms are different and distinct by definition. To use the terms interchangeably is misleading and confuses the public.
While it’s easy to get lost in numbers and definitions, we shouldn’t. We’d do well to focus more of our attention on an issue that fuels much of the current debate: how the government calculates the official poverty measure. Public schools face growing challenges in educating low-income students. But many wonder about the methods the government uses to calculate the official poverty rate. Fact is, the official poverty rate takes no account for regional differences in price levels, money income of personal taxes paid or capital gains reaped or noncash benefits that households consume, such as means tested public benefits and employer provided health insurance. Last I checked, Raleigh and New York City had vastly different costs of living. Yet, the formula the government uses to calculate the poverty rate treats these two cities equally. Is the official poverty level a valid reliable indicator of poverty in our nation? Median family income for a family of four in North Carolina is $61,420 and has increased 9.5 percent since 1999. But inexplicably, the official poverty rate depicts the last 30 years – a time of a great rise in living standards – as a time in which poverty has become ever more prevalent. Such discrepancies have not gone unnoticed. The Census Bureau is seeking to develop an alternative poverty estimate that is more inclusive of real income and regional differences. However, the lack of regional price data may doom the project.
The SEB report concludes with a call for southern states to provide additional resources to fund early education programs and fight poverty. I disagree. While schools that serve large populations of poor students face different educational challenges, the use of ever-expanding thresholds and flawed indicators as a metric to gauge the scope of a problem misleads the public. And, if I may invoke a comparison by the late U.S. Senator Patrick Moynihan’s infamous phrase – defining deviancy down – these developments lead to defining poverty “up.”
No doubt any criticism of the SEB report and recommendations by anyone not on the left will be interpreted as a lack of compassion for the poor or disadvantaged. It shouldn’t. Continually redefining poverty upward deceives our citizens, breeds dependency and wastes resources. A more helpful approach would be to expand economic opportunity, implement true structural reform to the public schools, effectively manage the impacts of immigration and improve our work force. Doing so would be a good first step in truly helping not only poor school children but also all North Carolinians.