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Popular Child-Poverty Measure Gets Another Look

The federal free- and reduced-price meals program, launched decades ago by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to combat child hunger through schools, has become a ubiquitous proxy for poverty in federal and state education and health programs, and public and private research on poverty. As eligibility criteria and participation in the program changes, however, researchers and state data experts argue it is a less-accurate lens through which to view disadvantaged students.

“It’s Department of Agriculture data,” said Matthew Cohen, the chief research officer for the Ohio education department’s office of policy and research, in a seminar at the National Center for Education Statistics annual meeting last month. “It’s becoming progressively less suitable for the education community. Rather than repurposing data needed to administer a meals program, we need to advance the data needed by educators and policymakers.”