Half of U.S. Students Eligible for Free or Reduced Lunch

Last Updated: January 28, 2015

This article appeared in the January 2015 Rural Policy Matters.

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Eligibility for free and reduced-price school lunches has long been a proxy measure of poverty among children in the U.S. And last year, for the first time since the program began, more than half of all students in public schools were eligible to participate in the program.

The Southern Education Foundation reported the news earlier this month in a paper entitled “A New Majority.” The paper compiles data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and finds that in 2013 51% of public school children and teens were eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches. The report refers to these students as “low-income.”

According to the report, less than 32% of students were eligible for the program in 1982. But the number has continued to rise since then, reaching 38% in 2000, growing to 42% in 2006, and jumping to 48% in 2011. In 2013 the number passed the 50% mark.

While rates have risen across the country, regional patterns persist. In 21 states, 19 of which are in the South and West, more than half of children were eligible for the program in 2013. In nineteen additional states, rates were between 40% and 49%. New Hampshire’s rate of 27% was the lowest in the nation. Mississippi at 71% and New Mexico at 68% were the highest.

Several national media outlets covered “A New Majority,” and in some cases the language got a little imprecise and equated free lunch participation with poverty. It was a predictable error given the measure’s long use as a poverty stand-in.

But free/reduced-price lunch participation is not a direct measure of poverty as defined by the federal government. The current poverty “line” is $24,000 for a family of four. Students are eligible for free lunches if they live in households making 185% of poverty, about $44,000. Children above poverty and below this cap are considered low-income, not poor.

Critics of the report were quick to point out misuse of the terms. Some downplayed both the extent and the effects of childhood poverty.

Free lunch rates are one of the best available measures for determining the number of children living in economic insecurity, but they have long presented researchers with difficulties. For example, eligibility rates and participation rates are not the same. Many eligible families and students (especially at middle and high school levels) do not participate in the program. This fact, historically, has led to under-counting of low-income students.

On the other hand, recent changes in program rules allow schools with high eligibility rates to provide free meals to all students whether or not the individual qualifies. This change may lead to over-counting the percentage of eligible students, another point critics have been quick to note.

But the point is not whether children living in households earning $30,000 are “poor.” Most children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches live in families that face difficult economic pressures and constraints that can have very negative and long-term consequences.

And, the fact remains that by most any measure, the percentage of U.S. children living in poverty exceeds that of other developed nations. It’s a serious problem, not to be quibbled about.

Read More:

The report:

News coverage:


Coverage challenging free/reduced lunches as a poverty measure:


Other news coverage of child poverty:



Annie E. Casey Foundation/Kids Count:

Children’s Defense Fund


Read more from the January 2015 Rural Policy Matters.