by Erin Barbaro, Assistant Director and Senior Geographic Information Systems Specialist at CARES
A recent NPR article, True Or False? Free And Reduced-Price Lunch = Poor asked if the often-used data on the number of children receiving free and reduced-priced lunch is really the best measure of their economic circumstances.
While the answer doesn’t seem terribly difficult, this question could be answered a number of different ways. At the Center for Applied Research and Environmental Systems (CARES), we manage the data for Community Commons and wrestle with this issue each day. Our partners are often surprised when we answer questions like these with our own queries: “How shall we define ‘children’ and how shall we define ‘poverty’?” The truth is that each measure or indicator used to make key policy, planning, and funding decisions is nuanced.
How else can we understand the level of poverty facing children in a community?
The NPR article argued that the percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch is a coarse and incomplete measure for understanding the level of poverty students are experiencing at home; but because school officials and policy makers make decisions based on this benchmark, it’s important that we understand its limitations.
Let’s take a look at poverty from two different perspectives here:
We can also see that data in map form:
As you can see, we get two very different pictures. So which one is “right?” The answer really depends on the geographic area, age group, and the level of poverty you wish to examine. Nationally, there are many reliable sources of poverty information for children.
Children in poverty data sources
One is, of course, the Free or Reduced Priced Lunch indicator we’ve been discussing. The data is available at the school and school district level and is made available by the National Center for Education Statistics annually.
- Number/percent of students eligible for Free or Reduced-Price Lunch (map link)
- Number/percent of students eligible for Free lunch (map link)
Another data set is the Census’ Small Area Income & Poverty Estimates, or SAIPE. It is available only by county and is updated each year for the following age groups
- Percent of Population in Poverty, Aged 0-4 (map link)
- Percent of Population in Poverty, Aged 0-18 (map link)
- Percent of Population in Poverty, Aged 5-17 (map link)
The Census’ American Community Survey (ACS) also releases 5-year estimates of children in poverty for many different levels of geography, including Census tract. Keep in mind, the smaller the geography, the higher the margin of error.
- Percent of Population Below the Poverty Level, Aged 0-17 (map link)
- Percent of Population Below 185% of the Poverty Level, Aged 0-17 (map link)
- Percent of Population Below 200% of the Poverty Level, Aged 0-17 (map link)
- Percent of Population Below 50% of the Poverty Level, Aged 0-17 (map link)
- Percent of Population Below the Poverty Level, Aged 0-4 (map link)
- Percent of Population Below the Poverty Level, Aged 5-17 (map link)
- Family Households with Children Living Below the Poverty Level (map link)
- Single Parent Family Households with Children Living Below the Poverty Level (map link)
And if you are interested in a national view of poverty, the National Center for Children in Poverty presents some great summaries of the ACS data here:
- Under 3 http://www.nccp.org/publications/pub_1096.html
- Under 6 http://www.nccp.org/publications/pub_1097.html
- Aged 6-11 http://www.nccp.org/publications/pub_1098.html
- Age 12-17: http://www.nccp.org/publications/pub_1099.html
- Under 18 http://www.nccp.org/publications/pub_1100.html
True or False? The free and reduced-price lunch indicator is the only indicator with limited utility.
False. When selecting the appropriate indicator for your needs, you must consider the geographic scope (i.e., is national or local-level data needed?), the granularity needed (i.e., is county level data sufficient? Do you need to understand the data at the neighborhood level?), your tolerance for low confidence intervals, and the timeliness of the information. Likewise, when reviewing a map or report presented to you by others it is important to understand the source and limitations of the data before making a major decision.
Want to learn how to use Maps and Reports on the Commons to explore children’s poverty in your community? Click here to get started.