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Childhood Hunger in America's Suburbs:

A Special Report

by David Elliot, Fair Share Education Fund; Jeff Inglis, Frontier Group

Executive Summary

Before the Great Recession, of every 1,000 American kids, 421 were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. After it, 485 out of every 1,000 American kids were. Of these additional 64 kids, 29 lived in the suburbs. Only 13 lived in cities, 15 lived in rural areas, and 7 lived in a town.

According to U.S. Department of Education data, eligibility for free and reduced-price lunches rose across the nation between 2006-07 and 2010-11. Before the recession, 42.1 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches; afterward, 48.5 percent of students were eligible, an increase of 6.4 percentage points.

Suburban public schools still have a lower percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches than schools in the rest of the country. But the rise of child poverty in suburban areas means that suburbs increasingly look like the rest of America when it comes to the prevalence of poor children.

Even though food insecurity in the aggregate is still greater in the cities than in the suburbs, between the school years 2006-07 and 2010-11, the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch grew at a much faster rate in the suburbs than in cities, rural areas or small- to mid-sized towns.

Fair Share Education Fund and Frontier Group examined data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) for the years 2006-07 and 2010-11 in order to test the hypothesis that hunger in the suburbs is indeed on the rise.[i]

Specifically, we measured the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches under the National School Lunch Program. Because eligibility depends on evidence that students’ families are low-income, higher eligibility rates in a given community indicate higher levels of child poverty. We chose to examine statistics from the years 2006-2007 and 2010-2011 because a) these years would give us a snapshot of school lunch eligibility before and after the onset of the 2007-09 Great Recession and b) 2010-2011 are the most recent complete statistics available.

We found:

  • Nationwide, the Great Recession made the risk of childhood hunger worse. The number of public school students eligible for the free or reduced-cost lunch program increased from more than 17.6 million to more than 19.8 million among schools that reported data in both years. (This number includes 49 states plus Washington, D.C.; Nevada did not report complete data to the U.S. Department of Education.)
  • The Great Recession changed the geography of school lunch eligibility. A strong plurality of students newly eligible for the free or reduced-cost school lunch program live in the suburbs – 45 percent. By comparison, 23 percent live in rural areas, 20 percent live in cities and 12 percent live in small- or mid-sized towns. (See Figure ES-1.)
  • The rise of poverty in the suburbs has had an equalizing effect; the suburbs now look more like rest of America when it comes to poverty and children living in food-insecure households. The share of suburban students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch is catching up to the share of eligible students in other types of communities.

Figure ES-1. Share of Public School Students Newly Eligible for Free or Reduced-price Lunch by Locale, from 2006-07 to 2010-11

 

This analysis comes as other data shed additional light on how much worse American poverty and hunger have become:

  • Today one in every six Americans is poor, according to 2012 census data, compared with one in nine Americans in 2004.[ii]
  • From 2000 to 2010, the number of suburban households below the poverty line increased by 53 percent, compared with a 23 percent increase in poor households in urban areas, according to a Brookings Institute analysis of census data.[iii]
  • Since 2000, the number of suburban residents living in poverty has grown by a whopping 64 percent.[iv]
  • Childhood hunger, on the rise since 2000, spiked dramatically in 2008 with the onset of the economic collapse. “In 2009, 23.2 percent of children lived in food insecure households, up from 16.9 percent in 1999,” notes a team of Stanford University researchers.[v]
  • And in 2010, there were 2.2 million more suburban households than urban households below the federal poverty line, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics – the first time in U.S. history that poverty in the suburbs outpaced poverty in the inner cities.[vi]

Childhood Hunger in America’s Suburbs shows the changing geography of childhood hunger at a time of growing suburban poverty. This report demonstrates that the risk of childhood hunger is an issue affecting nearly every American community, including communities that might otherwise think that hunger is a problem that occurs “somewhere else.”

 

[i] Amanda Pinto, “Suburban Hunger: 'Desperate Situations' Turning up in Affluent Towns (video),” New Haven Register, 7 February 2010.

[ii] Alemayhu Bishaw, U.S. Census Bureau, “Poverty: 2000 to 2012,” American Community Survey Briefs, September 2013.

[iii] Andrei Scheinkman and Timothy Wallace, “Poverty Moves to the Suburbs,” Huffington Post, 1 March 2012.

[iv] Brookings Institution, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America (video), accessed at confrontingsuburbanpoverty.org/action-toolkit, 29 July 2014.

[v] Recession Trends, Understanding Food Insecurity During the Great Recession, accessed at web.stanford.edu/group/recessiontrends/cgi-bin/web/resources/research-project/understanding-food-insecurity-during-great-recession, 7 July 2014.

[vi] Feeding America, Hunger in America 2010 National Report, 1 February 2010.

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