A closer look at income and race concentration in public schools

Interactives, stories, and collections that go beyond the data
May 13, 2015

A closer look at income and race concentration in public schools

In 2013, for the first time, over half of public school students were low-income—and this poverty growth spurt shows little sign of abating.

A majority of public school students nationwide are from low-income families, according to analysis by the Southern Education Foundation. But mapping this disadvantage shows that it’s unevenly spread across the country: poverty is concentrated in specific schools, and black students are more likely than white students to attend these high-poverty schools.

The foundation’s report tracks student poverty through eligibility for free and reduced-price lunches, which are available to students with family incomes at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level. Although eligibility for such programs is an imperfect measure for poverty, it is often used by federal agencies as a close proxy. About 33 percent of public school students in 1995 and about 38 percent in 2000 were from low-income families. But, for the first time since the beginning of tracking, the share surged to over 50 percent in 2013, after the Great Recession.  

A small share of this increase may be attributed to changes in enrollment rules and program eligibility, but evidence suggests that rising child poverty and economic instability and, perhaps, increased immigration are the primary drivers of this change.

If our school systems continue on a trajectory of increasing poverty, they will face mounting challenges educating students. What’s more, students of color will continue to face setbacks from the disadvantages of high-poverty schools, while white students will continue to benefit from a legacy of discrimination that largely insulates them from high-poverty schools. Public policy can and should respond, but policymakers need a more nuanced understanding of how this increase is playing out in local areas.

Place matters for school poverty

Southern states like Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas have the highest levels of students in low-income families attending public schools. But state-level estimates can hide important patterns. For example, a closer look reveals that large shares of low-income areas in the South are often rural. In many rural parts of Kentucky (such as Jackson, Owsley, and Clay Counties), 60 percent or more of all students are from low-income families. A similar belt of rural poverty stretches across Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

Scroll over the map to see the share of students in low-income families in schools within a particular county. Sometimes counties and school districts are identical, but some counties contain multiple school districts. Unlike  many school districts, however, counties are usually meaningful geographies for citizens and policymakers. 

Some major southern metropolitan regions that include suburban and urban areas also have high numbers of students from low-income families. In the greater Dallas area, the share is over 70 percent; in Harris County, Texas, which includes most of metropolitan Houston, the share is about 66 percent .

In northern states, where the overall rate is lower, we find more students in low-income families in metropolitan areas, like Minneapolis (Hennepin County) and Indianapolis (Marion County), and in Native American areas, like the Lakota region of South Dakota.

South Dakota is an example of how poverty varies by place, even within states. The state’s share of students in low-income families is about 40 percent, but the shares in the Lakota counties of Shannon, Todd, and Ziebach are close to 100 percent. These alarming rates are certainly worthy of policy attention, yet they are obscured in state-level estimates.  


As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.