The economic downturn is driving more and more families into the ranks of the poor and the “near poor” who barely make it from paycheck to paycheck. This pattern is chillingly clear from the rising numbers of formerly middle-class children now qualifying for free or low-cost meals under the federally financed school lunch program.
A recent analysis of federal data by The Times showed that the number of children receiving subsidized lunches rose to 21 million in the last school year from 18 million in 2006-7, a 17 percent increase. During that period, nearly a dozen states — including Nevada, Florida, Tennessee and New Jersey — experienced increases of 25 percent or more. In New York City, as of last month, a little more than 62 percent of the city’s children were eligible for free lunch — up from around 57 percent in 2007.
Under federal rules, children from families with incomes up to 130 percent of the poverty level — $29,055 for a family of four — are eligible for free meals; those in four-member families that earn up to $41,348 qualify for a reduced-cost lunch. School systems across the country are doing a better job registering needy families for the lunch program, thanks to a 2004 law that requires them to match enrollment lists with lists of welfare and food-stamp recipients. While that has brought in more students, experts say the bad economy is the main factor for the increase.
The federal government spent nearly $11 billion on this program in fiscal 2010 and is likely to spend more in 2011. While critics of safety-net programs will inevitably complain about the cost, the real problem is that so many millions of American children need this help.