Are Public Schools Making Us Poor?

An article from a couple years ago cited evidence suggesting that the majority of public school students come from “low-income” families are are thus "in poverty." This is based on a study showing that 51% of students during the 2012-2013 school year were eligible for free lunch or reduced-price lunches.

Is Low-Income the Same as Poor?

Obviously, this is a high percentage, which raises the question of what actually qualifies a child for free or reduced-price lunch. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture,

“Guidelines for free meals and milk and reduced price meals were obtained by multiplying the year 2012 Federal income poverty guidelines by 1.30 and 1.85, respectively, and by rounding the result upward to the next whole dollar.”

The Federal poverty level for 2012 was $15,130 for two people in a household, $19,090 for three, and $23,050 for four. So as long as a family makes under 185% of this level, a student will qualify for at least “reduced-price lunches.” So let’s do the math—a single mother with one child (two people in the house) qualifies for reduced-price lunches as long as the mother makes less than $27,991. If she has two children (three people), she needs to make under $35,317. And if she has three children, or if it is a married couple with two kids (four people), they qualify if income is less than $42,643.

Once we do the math, we see that things are being slanted to a degree. Yes, all families receiving free lunch or reduced-price lunches can be considered “low income.” But not all of these people should be considered “poor." As we have seen, families can qualify for a subsidized lunch and make almost double the federal poverty line (185%). A man with a stay-at-home wife and two kids can make $42,000 a year and still qualify for reduced-price lunches. That means the man is making $21 an hour. Such a family is not rich, but they are also not poor. This type of family may also live in an area with a lower cost of living, which means $42,000 will go much further than in a wealthy suburb. Heck, they probably even have cable TV and Internet.

All of this is to say that using the qualifications for “reduced-price lunches” is probably not a good indicator for concluding that half of America’s children in public schools are "in poverty." A majority may be “low income,” but they are not necessarily even close to the federal poverty line. The issue then becomes what we mean by being "poor." The meaning of the term is often relative, as being poor in America usually means something far different from being poor in a third-world country.

Three Reasons Public Schools Are Making Us Poor

That being said, I still think there is something to associating poverty with America’s public school system. Progressives lament the poverty associated with inner city schools, and they use the situation to argue that the schools need more money. But lack of funding is certainly not the problem, as public schools spend on average more than $12,000 per child. And inner city schools usually spend far more than this. What progressives really ought to be lamenting is that the public schools themselves contribute to poverty. Here are three reasons why this is the case:

(1) Public schools take our money through heavy taxation, making everyone poorer. This is the most obvious point here. A good percentage of local and state taxes go towards public schools, as well as a portion of federal taxes. (This varies quite a bit, but it is often around 40% of local and state taxes.) Yes, people would pay for education regardless. But it would be much cheaper to pay for school in the free market. Private schools, like all private businesses, are much more efficient with their money than the government. Therefore a privatized system would be much cheaper than the current public schools. It could save families thousands of dollars per year, especially for families who choose to homeschool. 

Can it be said that taxes for publics schools hurt the poor less because they pay fewer taxes than middle and upper class families? Yes, but the poor still pay state and local taxes, and a good portion of their taxes still goes towards education. While they may be hurt less, the poor still are paying more than they should have to for education because of government inefficiency. This particularly affects upper lower-income families. A tax break would help them significantly.

(2) Compulsory attendance for public schools limits job experience, making students poorer. Every state requires students to attend school until age 16, with many up to age 18. This means students are forced to sit in a classroom for seven hours per day, even if they are receiving a lousy education (as is common in inner city schools). In addition, many students just do not do well in a full-day classroom environment. Either they have trouble sitting there all day (many boys), or they are just are not gifted academically. It is not politically correct to say this—but this is a fact. Some students are just not gifted academically. However, this does mean they are useless to society. Instead of avoiding reality, we should encourage weak students to seek careers in skilled trades.

Unfortunately, our government makes weak students sit in a classroom during peak work hours of the day, which causes students to lose out on valuable experience and skills they could be gaining through apprenticeships and internships. These things are difficult to get when you are stuck in school until 3 P.M. So most students graduate high school at 18 with little money saved up and few work skills. In other words, their “education” was not only useless but a hindrance. Not only should we abolish compulsory attendance laws (as attendance should be compelled by parents, not the state), but we should also rethink the idea that everyone needs to go to school past 14 or 15. Many kids would be far better off in life by having the responsibility of a job at this age. They may just develop skills that can get them a decent job by age 18 or 20. 

(3) Public schools destroy families, making people poor. This point requires some fleshing out. That the government taxes us for public schools is obvious. But it is a bold claim to say the schools are destroying families. However, I think this point can be demonstrated convincingly. First, schools separate parents from children. Compulsory state schools take kids away from their parents for seven hours per day. But what these kids really need is time with their parents. Our children today are suffering all sorts of social and psychological problems, and people wonder why. Many suggest schools therefore need more counselors and therapists, while doctors just keep prescribing them more drugs. But one of the primary causes for these problems is that kids do not spend enough time with their parents, who are in the best position to love and understand them.

Second, America’s public schools teach sexual behavior that leads to poverty. The Christian virtue of chastity until marriage has been expunged from the schools. Instead, public schools teach the Darwinian view that we are complex animals, and they equate sex education with birth control. Are we then surprised that single motherhood is rampant among in America, especially those in lower-income areas where parents are less present?

Progressives love to talk about “income inequality” today, but they leave out the fact that single motherhood is the number one factor for poverty. So let’s ask ourselves—is encouraging extra-marital sex good for future wealth? The answer is obvious. Yet single motherhood has gone up exponentially in the last 50 years, with around 40% of America’s children now raised by single mothers. Is this entirely the fault of public schools? No. Parents are also at fault. But the school system is to blame for encouraging recreational sex and the children that result from it. Children need to be taught that sex belongs to marriage, and one of the reasons is because children belong to marriage.

Essentially, our public school system has usurped the role of parents and removed their motivation for responsibility in life. The state takes kids away from parents and encourages behavior that leads to single motherhood. Then the single mothers work full time and send their kids to state schools as a form of day care, thus spending even less time with their children. And so the cycle repeats. Our educational system wants to help by playing “daddy,” but it only ends up perpetuating the problem. The state is not designed to function as a parent. Kids need a mom and a dad. And they need to spend time with them in the home.


So yes, the public schools are making people poorer. The state taxes us to death for their money-squandering schools, they keep some kids from entering the trades at an ideal age, and they destroy families by taking kids away and encouraging single motherhood. Government school supporters leave these facts out and then tell us they need more money for the schools in order to help all the poor kids. How long will we keep falling for this ploy? Instead of asking how we can give more money to feed a failing system, maybe we need to ask—why are there so many negligent parents in these schools in the first place? The state keeps calling for more, when then answer really is less. Families and kids need less government school, less compulsion, and less taxation. Essentially, they need more freedom. The public schools are an obvious failure. It’s time we look elsewhere for a solution.