Poverty, Homelessness Rising Sharply Among Florida Students

Listen to FCIR Associate Director Mc Nelly Torres discuss this story on Florida NPR:

By Mc Nelly Torres
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Since the economy collapsed in 2008, Florida’s student population has become poorer each year — with almost all school districts in the state experiencing spikes in the number of kids who qualify for subsidized meals.

Children have become homeless at alarming numbers as well.

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Homelessness among school-age children has soared from 30,878 in the 2006-07 school year to 56,680 in 2010-11. Homelessness for children of all ages, including those too young for public school, was 83,957 in 2010-11, up from 49,886 in 2006-07.

The adverse effects of the economic downturn are having a significant impact on Florida’s public school system, in which over 56 percent of students enrolled in the 2010-2011 school year qualified for subsidized meals.

The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting analyzed data relating to poverty rates, homeless students and subsidized meals for all school districts before the financial crisis began up to and through the 2010-11 school year. The widespread increase in these three poverty indicators paints a picture of a state that has become much poorer after the Great Recession.

Advocates for the homeless say external factors driven by poverty — such as lack of housing, low wages, foreclosure and unemployment — place Florida and its public school system at a critical juncture.

Children living in poverty are more likely to have behavioral problems, complete fewer years of education, and, as they grow up, tend to experience more years of unemployment, according to poverty experts and research by the American Psychological Association.

“I think that we are growing a Third World in our own back yard,” said Ellen L. Bassuk, founder and president of the National Center on Family Homelessness, an advocacy and research organization in Needham, Mass. “We look at developing countries, but we don’t look at our own country.”

Students considered homeless by the U.S. Department of Education include those who have experienced loss of housing and are currently staying with a relative, neighbor or friend. It also includes students living in motels, hotels, Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers, trailer parks or camping grounds, as well as those living in emergency or transitional shelters and awaiting foster care placement.

Even as resources have dwindled in recent years, schools have increasingly become safe havens for needy students.

Ken Gaughan, supervisor of school social services at Hillsborough County Public Schools, said the school district partners with charitable groups, churches and government agencies to provide referrals for children in need.

“We have always had poverty in this county, but now we have a new group,” Gaughan said, noting the increase of working and middle-class families that have fallen into poverty. “They are embarrassed and sometimes they don’t know how to ask for help.”

Poverty grows

More than one in five children (15.7 million) lived in poverty in the United States in 2010. In Florida, 924,000 children lived in poverty.

The number of students slipping into poverty has affected all 67 school districts in the state, with poverty growing hand-in-hand with unemployment.

Palm Beach County saw the biggest increase in poverty rates among large school districts, rising 66 percent from 2007 to 2010. Other large and medium-sized school districts showing big increases during that time included Orange (60 percent), Polk (58 percent), Hillsborough (52 percent), Osceola (48 percent), Seminole (42 percent), Broward (33 percent) and Miami-Dade (32 percent).

But this upward trend also affected small school districts such as St. Johns and Collier, where the number of poor students doubled in four years.

Poverty has also affected Martin County Public Schools. The school district experienced the largest increase in student poverty in the state, from 2,198 children in 2007 to 3,796 in 2009, a 73 percent jump.

While the increase in poverty rates has helped school districts obtain more federal funds — by adding more schools to Title I, a federal supplemental program intended to help educate low-income students — officials said the funding doesn’t compensate for deep cuts at the state level, a trend since 2007.

“If these numbers [poverty rate] keep growing, it would be difficult for Florida to deal with the population and provide extra services,” said Karen Hawley Miles, president and executive director of Watertown, Mass.-based Education Resource Strategies, which helps school districts develop ways to use resources more effectively.

A silent problem

Widespread poverty in the state has left thousands of children homeless in Florida, with growing numbers of families struggling to feed their children and provide homes.

Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., said ignoring this crisis could have devastating consequences.

“You can only expect so much from a child if they don’t receive what they need at this stage of their lives,” Duffield said. “You need to eat, sleep and be warm and safe. These are all basic things.”

In Florida during the past five years, homelessness among public school students ages 5 to 17 jumped 84 percent. During the 2010-11 school year, the most recent year for which statewide data is available, 56,680 students were reported homeless.

Duffield and other advocates said these numbers are likely low since homelessness is difficult to quantify.

“There are some kids that might not be at school,” Duffield said. “And there might be homeless kids who are still going to school but haven’t told everybody.”

Christina M. Savino, a homeless liaison in Orange County Public Schools, talked about the growing problem in Central Florida.

“Every day we get new students. It might be two or five, but every day we have an increase of identified homeless students,” Savino said. “Whether they just became homeless or the school just found out, I don’t know, but the numbers increase every day.”

Miami-Dade had the most homeless students with 4,406 in 2010-11, followed by Orange (3,387), Hillsborough (3,659), Lake (2,992), Pinellas (2,915) and Polk (2,446).

“Most of these kids are not going to graduate from high school,” said Bassuk, who is also a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “And that would put them at risk and on a vicious cycle. With all the budget cuts across the board, the number of homeless students will continue to grow.”

Feeding the poor

More students attending public schools are receiving free and low-cost meals, a reflection of the current financial hardship affecting thousands of families in the state.

Their numbers have risen to more than 1.4 million in the 2010-11 school year — up from more than 1.2 million in 2007-08. Subsidized meals or free and/or reduced meals are the accepted indicators of poverty in public schools.

Of 67 school districts in Florida, 64 reported three-year gains in students eligible for subsidized meals.

Some of the state’s largest school districts — Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, Orange, Duval, Palm Beach and Polk — have traditionally had the highest numbers of students in poverty. Over half of students in these seven school districts qualified for free and/or reduced meals in 2010-11. Miami-Dade was at the top, with 7 of 10 students qualifying for free and/or reduced meals.

But increasing poverty has also affected smaller school districts in Florida. In Nassau and Monroe, the number of students qualifying for free and/or reduced meals increased 24 percent from 2008 to 2011. St. Johns and Santa Rosa reported 23 percent and 22 percent jumps, respectively.

Students in families with incomes up to 130 percent of the poverty level — or $29,055 for a family of four — are eligible for free school meals. Children in a four-member household with income up to $41,348 qualify for a subsidized lunch priced at 40 cents.

Mary Kate Harrison, general manager of student nutrition services at Hillsborough County Public Schools, said the biggest gains of children eligible for subsidized meals have come from middle and high school students. Over half (55 percent) of the 194,525 students enrolled in Hillsborough County in 2010-2011 were on the subsidized meal program.

“It has gone up dramatically for the past three or four years,” Harrison said.

And there are no signs that these numbers will decline any time soon. Some school districts including Hillsborough (60 percent), Orange (60 percent), Broward (59 percent) and Miami-Dade (73 percent) have reported additional increases in 2011-12.

When asked if she worries whether many children in her district go to bed hungry, Harrison responded: “That’s always a concern when they go home.”

— Data visualizations by Grant Smith