To identify children in need, look beyond free lunch data
In education policy and public debate, we often talk about students from “low-income” families. That descriptor is typically based on data from the National School Lunch Program, which provides qualified students with school meals for free or at a reduced price. Enrollment in the program, which is operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, plays a central role in identifying low-income students in U.S. schools and thus a central role in consequential education funding and accountability policies at the federal, state, and local levels.
For example, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to track gaps in student achievement by poverty status. Among the 50 states, 44 use free and reduced-price lunch enrollment to identify low-income students. These data are also commonly used to allocate federal, state, and local funding to schools serving low-income children. School and district poverty rates, as determined by free and reduced-price lunch enrollment, additionally feature prominently in social science research, school-funding lawsuits, state laws and regulations, and philanthropic investment.
Yet a close look shows that free and reduced-price meal designations in the National School Lunch Program are grossly inaccurate indicators of family income. Using administrative data from Missouri, we find that student enrollment in the program is oversubscribed by about 40 to 50 percent relative to stated income-eligibility rules. This finding is not unique to Missouri. We see the same basic pattern in an extended sample of 27 states. Moreover, this is not a recent phenomenon. Enrollment in the school lunch program was oversubscribed even before 2014–15 when the “Community Eligibility Provision” was rolled out nationally, which permits sufficiently high-poverty schools and districts to enroll all their students to receive free meals.