Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
Since the recession, more children than ever are living in impoverished school districts.
For parents with multiple kids under one roof, being poor has a compounding effect. That’s why in America, children make up 23 percent of the population but 33 percent of all people in poverty.
If that isn’t staggering enough, those children are concentrated together at school. 25 percent of the nation’s school districts contain 82 percent of children living in poverty. And the communities defined by those districts have swollen since the Great Recession. In 2006, there were 15.9 million students living within school districts where the overall child poverty rate was 20 percent or higher. In 2013, there were 26.3 million—a stunning 60 percent increase over just seven years.
Now, that doesn’t meant that all 26.3 million of them are living in poverty, or even attending public school. But it does mean that about half of all U.S. children live in places where a significant number of families are just scraping by.
EdBuild, a nonprofit that advocates for public school funding, has released an interactive map (shown above, courtesy of the Huffington Post) that shows all the U.S. school districts where the student poverty rate exceeded 20 percent, 30 percent, and 40 percent, time-lapsed from 2006 to 2013. It’s based on Census SAIPE data, which measures poverty in small units, such as school districts and counties. You can zoom in and search to see how your local district or region has fared.
Southern states have seen population expanding overall, with poverty levels rising in tandem. In the Midwest, it’s more of a deepening of poverty, as high-income families flee and low-income residents are left in concentration. Florida, ground-zero of the foreclosure crisis and among the slowest states to recover from the recession, is probably the most jaw-dropping example of poverty concentrating in school districts: In 2013, 76.3 percent of Florida children lived in districts where the student poverty rate was more than 20 percent. In 2006, those districts contained only 6 percent.
If those numbers (or the maps below) are so dramatic that they’re hard to believe, note that there may be some caveats to EdBuild’s data. Kye Lippold, a research associate at the Urban Institute, points out that the Census changed their methodology for computing school district poverty levels in 2010, which might explain at least part of the jump between 2009 and 2010. So it’s hard to say whether EdBuild’s exact numbers are completely accurate; it would take a more complex analysis to figure that out.
But, Lippold adds via email, “It is very likely true that the number of students in high-poverty districts has increased… the Great Recession could be expected to have this effect.”
That seems indisputable. And it’s certainly true that when your community is poor, your school district suffers in turn. In many states and localities, per-student spending is dramatically lower in poor school districts than it is in affluent ones—about 15 percent less on average. This is despite the fact that poor children need more funding than affluent peers, not less. The Washington Post writes:
Children who live in poverty come to school at a disadvantage, arriving at their classrooms with far more intensive needs than their middle-class and affluent counterparts. Poor children also lag their peers, on average, on almost every measure of academic achievement.
We also know that the sheer quantity of children living in poverty has increased dramatically—from 18 percent to 22 percent for children 0-18 years old from 2007 to 2013. And the consequences of attending impoverished schools are well known. As I wrote in July:
As a 2012 report by the University of California–Los Angeles's Civil Rights Project details, districts of concentrated poverty project a spectrum of negative educational opportunities and outcomes for their students: Less-experienced, less-qualified teachers, high rates of teacher turnover, and inadequate facilities and materials, and lower academic achievement. These effects, as so much research shows, can reverberate for a lifetime.