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The Concentration of Poverty in American Schools

The Atlantic
February 29, 2016

The Atlantic

In almost all major American cities, most African American and Hispanic students attend public schools where a majority of their classmates qualify as poor or low-income, a new analysis of federal data shows.

This systemic economic and racial isolation looms as a huge obstacle for efforts to make a quality education available to all American students. Researchers have found that the single-most powerful predictor of racial gaps in educational achievement is the extent to which students attend schools surrounded by other low-income students.

Underscoring the breadth of the challenge, the economic segregation of minority students persists across virtually all types of cities, from fast-growing Sunbelt places like Austin, Denver, Dallas, and Charlotte to struggling Rust Belt communities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee, to the nation’s largest metropolitan centers, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston. But cities, educators, and researchers are also exploring new ways to abate the negative impact of concentrated poverty on black and brown students.

In about half of the largest 100 cities, most African American and Latino students attend schools where at least 75 percent of all students qualify as poor or low-income under federal guidelines. These stark results emerge from an analysis of data from the National Equity Atlas. The Atlas is a joint project of PolicyLink and the University of Southern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, or PERE. Following federal guidelines, the National Equity Atlas defines low-income students as those eligible for the federal free- and reduced-lunch program. That includes students with incomes up to $44,863 for a family of four, or 185 percent of the federal poverty line. (Students from families with incomes up to the 130 percent of the poverty line, or $31,525 for a family of four, are eligible for free lunch; the remainder can obtain reduced price lunches.)

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