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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Poverty Plaguing Schools

July 19, 2013 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Minnesota’s schools reflect Minnesota’s strengths and weaknesses. School success flows from state and community values, goals and investments. Our schools are strong because we value education and we back rhetoric with money. The same holds for state and school challenges. The one is inseparable from the other. Addressing a broad schooling problem requires confronting a state problem.

We shouldn’t expect anything different. Yet, we’re always surprised when Minnesota’s problems manifest in Minnesota’s schools.

Minnesota has an inequitable income distribution problem. Consequently, so do Minnesota’s schools. Poverty in schools, like poverty in Minnesota, is a growing but complicated problem. We’re not used to conjoining poverty and education. We prefer to pretend that the former doesn’t affect the latter while simultaneously believing that education can eliminate poverty. And, it can but it’s not a quick-fix situation.

In the 2012-2013 school year, 318,000 Minnesota school children were eligible to receive free or reduced price lunch, representing 38% of the school-aged population. In 2008, 270,000 kids were eligible, 33% of the school-aged population. That’s an 18% increase from 2008 to 2012. It’s an indisputable measure of community economic stress generated by growing poverty.

Poverty is the absence of money and material possessions but also includes limited means of support. Poverty estimation involves calculating living costs in a particular place, determining the minimal amount of income necessary to meet those costs. Current national poverty guidelines find that a single person earning less than $11,490 is living in poverty. The figure for a family of four is $23,550. That’s not a lot of money.

Minnesota’s minimum wage is $7.25/hour (it's $6.25/hour at some smaller companies.) Multiply that figure by 40 hours a week for an annual minimum wage of $15,080. That’s a figure barely above the poverty level for a single working individual but well below for a family of four dependent on a single minimum wage income.

Poverty in Minnesota is growing. Low income Minnesotans constitute 28% of the state’s population when poverty is defined as anyone with an income lower than 200% of the federal poverty threshold, roughly $47,000 for a family of four. In St Paul, for example, 25% of people live in poverty compared with the seven-county metro area’s 11% rate. Consequently, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that more kids are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch.

Free and reduced-price lunch eligibility guidelines are established annually by the United State Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services, following Congressional directive. It’s rooted in the effort to fairly alleviate poverty’s grinding impacts. Updates can be found in the Federal Register, the federal government’s unofficial daily publication for communicating public documents.

Childhood poverty’s negative impacts and lifelong consequence is well-established. Yet, when poverty follows children into schools just as it follows them throughout their lives, we act surprised. Recent top-down education reform efforts, in fact, seem to turn poverty denial into an entirely new level of disconnection. One tactic is to insist that Minnesota schools possess adequate resources to achieve successful educational outcome. Only leadership shortcomings and fiscal discipline failure prevents the proper use of K12 educational dollars. In truth, Minnesota is investing fewer state dollars today, adjusted for inflation, than it was ten years ago. Taking money out of schools concentrates and exacerbates problems, it doesn’t fix them.

Free and reduced-price lunch eligibility is a snap shot of poverty’s growing impact on schooling. But, don’t lose sight of the big picture. Kids are increasingly living in poverty because their families are increasingly living in poverty. Every barrier to school success and education’s transformative promise is magnified by poverty. We can’t pretend that poverty in schools doesn’t exist just as we can’t pretend that poverty doesn’t exist.

Wage stagnation hits middle income people hard but it strikes low income wage earners harder. As long as we ask Minnesota’s highest income earners to bear a lower effective tax burden than we ask low and middle income earners to bear, poverty’s dark consequences will accumulate. The longer the list of free/reduced price lunch eligible kids, the greater the distance becomes to Minnesota prosperity.

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  • John says:

    July 22, 2013 at 10:02 am

    Aside from the cognitive dissonance of equating tax policy with the challenge of educating children whose priority and focus is how they will survive the day not how they will prosper in the future; the author fails to consider that 60% of the tax dollars that flow into the states coffers come from the fewer than 10% of taxpayers.  Those taxpayers have options and if they feel the burden of carrying the 90% is greater than the benefit of residing in the community they will leave.  Don’t believe me? Ask the mayor of Detroit!

  • tony says:

    July 22, 2013 at 2:51 pm

    10% pays 60%? Yes, but they are still paying half the rate in state & local taxes that is paid by someone making minimum wage. The population in Detroit has plummeted but due to the lack of jobs & why do the states with the highest tax rates have the most Fortune 500 companies. MN is second in the nation. Is it because we can afford good roads, good schools & the overall quality of life that a CEO wants for himself & his employees?