The majority of students in U.S. public schools are low-income for the first time in at least five decades, according to a new report by the Southern Education Foundation.
The report measured poverty among students by the number of those that qualified for free and reduced lunch. Nationwide, 51 percent of students met that measure for the 2012-2013 school year.
The numbers show one part of a larger story about growing inequality in America, according to Kent McGuire, president of the Southern Education Foundation.
“The fact is, we’ve had growing inequality in the country for many years,” McGuire told the Washington Post. “It didn’t happen overnight, but it’s steadily been happening. Government used to be a source of leadership and innovation around issues of economic prosperity and upward mobility. Now we’re a country disinclined to invest in our young people.”
The south and west had the highest concentration of low-income students; Mississippi was the highest at 71 percent, while New Mexico followed at 68 percent.
The number of low-income students in U.S. schools has grown in all but five states since 2006, when a study by the same foundation revealed that the south had become the first region in the country to have a majority of low-income students. Since then, Utah has seen the highest increase, from 34 percent in 2006 to 59 percent in 2013, and the second-highest increase occurred in Iowa, where the number jumped from 32 to 47 percent.
In contrast, the northeast had the highest concentration of states with fewer low-income students. New Hampshire had the lowest number, with 27 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch.
States that spend more money per student also tended to have a lower number of low-income students, according to the Washington Post. 22 of the 27 states with the highest numbers of low-income students spent less per student than the national average.
While the number of low-income students is increasing, so is the gap between them and their wealthier peers. A growing income gap is also clear between ethnic and racial groups—the amount by which white people earn more than black and Hispanic people has increased since 2008, according to the Pew Research Center.
The report adds another voice to an ongoing debate over revising the No Child Left Behind Act, which proponents said was meant to benefit disadvantaged students. One of the law’s measures of success is by standardized test scores, which critics say puts lower-income students who are less able to pay for test preparation at a disadvantage.