Who’s paying?

Fourth-grade students at West Noble Elementary School in Ligonier enjoy lunch Wednesday. About 60 percent of students in West Noble receive free or reduced-cost lunches through the National School Lunch Program. Across the region, about 40 percent of students get subsidized lunches. Kelly Lynch

West Noble Elementary School fourth graders eat lunch on Wednesday. Across the four-county region, about 40 percent of students get free or reduced-cost lunches provided through the National School Lunch Program. Kelly Lynch

KPC News Service

LIGONIER — Go through the lunch line at a West Noble School Corp. building, and chances are you’ll be hard-pressed to find a student paying full price for a lunch.

With 60 percent of students registered for a free or reduced-cost lunch through the National School Lunch Program, West Noble leads the region in students qualified to get government-subsidized meals. But that’s not a phenomenon restricted to this one district.

Most school districts in northeast Indiana have more than a third of their enrollment on the lunch program. The actual number eligible for assistance is probably higher, because some parents don’t apply even though they would qualify, school officials said.

School lunch percentages are one reflection of Indiana’s economy and the wages Hoosiers earn, since eligibility for the program is based on household income. The local percentages and Indiana’s statewide rate of 49 percent are growing sign of wage inadequacy, according to the director of a working families policy group.

And those lunch numbers can translate back into the classroom, as research has shown that children from poverty or low-income homes have a harder time learning in class, school leaders said.

To qualify for a free lunch, household income has to be below 130 percent of the federal poverty line, or under 185 percent to get a reduced-cost lunch.

For the 2016-17 school year, that means a single parent with one child would have to make less than $20,826 per year to get a free lunch or $29,637 for a reduced-cost lunch. A two-parent household with two children would have to earn less than $31,590 to get a free lunch or $44,995 to get a reduced-cost lunch.

Rates increased sharply in all counties after the Great Recession, which began at the end of 2007 and caused a spike in unemployment through 2008 and 2009.

In 2007, about 30 percent of students were receiving free or reduced lunches in Steuben, DeKalb and LaGrange counties, and about 40 percent across all of Noble County, according to data from the Indiana Youth Institute. Rates topped out around 2012-13.

Free and reduced lunch usage has declined slightly since last year. Throughout the four-county region, 11 out of 13 districts had rates shrink. Of the two that didn’t, Prairie Heights in LaGrange County was unchanged, at 42.5 percent, while Hamilton in Steuben and DeKalb counties had a slight uptick to 33 percent, from 31.8 percent last school year.

But even now with unemployment rates at lows not seen since the early 2000s, the free and reduced rate remains stubborn, still at levels 10-15 percentage points higher than the prerecession mark.

That’s a sign that wages haven’t risen enough to elevate families to self-sufficiency, a standard of being able to afford all of their expenses without requiring public assistance, said Jessica Fraser, director of the Indiana Institute for Working Families.

That’s occurred because of several different factors, Fraser said. Workers may have lost high-paying jobs and replaced them with lower-wage jobs. Companies haven’t increased pay at rates seen in previous decades. And some educated workers remain underemployed because they can’t find better jobs using their degrees or skills.

“What that tells us is the economy is not working for everyone. There are a lot of folks who are working hard, maybe working more than one job, and they’re just not making ends meet,” Fraser said.

Free and reduced lunch usage may not deflate back to prerecession levels, because recent economic trends are creating job polarization, said Michael Hicks of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. Highly educated, highly skilled workers are finding more opportunity and more income, while low-skilled workers have fewer opportunities than they did a decade ago, he said.

Income distribution typically has looked like a bell curve, with most people falling into the middle class in the center of the curve and fewer people on the highest and lowest ends, Hicks said. But recent economics forces are pushing people toward the ends, as if you put your hand on the top of the curve and pressed downward.

“You’re going to see an increase in upper-middle-class households, but also in lower-middle-income households. That really tends then to mean you’re going to have an increase in programs like free and reduced lunch or food stamps,” Hicks said.

Rates also have been affected by a change in household demographics. In the mid 20th-century, most families were two-parent households with two earners or one earner making enough to support a family, Hicks said. Nowadays there are more single-parent households, and higher-income couples are typically waiting longer to have children until they are financially established, while lower-income families are not.

Parents with school-age children typically are early in their careers and therefore not earning wages that a middle-aged worker is pulling down, Fraser said. So efforts to provide better wages for young earners such as government incentivizing companies that create high-paying jobs, raising the minimum wage or widening overtime pay availability could help lift more families off public assistance programs, she said.

For schools, a high free and reduced lunch rate can be an indicator of how challenging it will be to educate students.

A variety of factors play into the struggle to educate low-income students. Parents who did not have high educational achievement may not stress education as much, impoverished families may not be able to afford as many books or games or educational technology and working couples or single parents may not have as much time to devote to their children’s educational needs, West Noble Superintendent Dennis VanDuyne said.

“Pretty much all the research says that students who come from homes of lower income are going to have a more difficult time learning. We don’t know if that is nutritional or environmental or exposure, or maybe a combination of all the reasons,” VanDuyne said.

Schools do get some additional funding based on how much of the student population comes from low-income homes, but VanDuyne said recent changes in the school funding formula have done a “reverse Robin Hood” and sent more funding to larger, wealthier districts at the expense of low-income schools.

“We’re going to take away the bonus money for poverty and spread it out across all schools in the state,” VanDuyne said. “That’s great, if you don’t have poverty.”

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