WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nearly half of all children in America live in school districts with high levels of poverty, according to U.S. Census data released on Tuesday that pointed to financial traps many public schools are caught in.
According to the Census, 45 percent of all 54 million children aged 5 to 17 resided in school districts with poverty rates greater than 20 percent in 2010. Another 34.3 percent live in districts where poverty rates are between 10 and 20 percent.
There are 13,604 school districts in the country.
At the same time, in one-third of counties, the rate of children living in poverty was “significantly above the national poverty rate of 19.8 percent” in 2010, the last year for which data is available. In 851 counties, the rate was “significantly below.”
States contribute 48 percent of funding for primary and secondary education, while the federal government pitches in about 8 percent. The U.S. government will use the Census data to distribute funds and manage programs.
Local governments such as counties, cities and school districts provide the rest of the money, primarily through property taxes. That means in districts where poverty runs high school funds are often low.
Almost all school districts are still struggling with the effects of economic recession. From October 2010 to last month, local governments have shed 118,400 education jobs.
Last school year, 41 percent of schools had funding decreases and 72 percent expect further drops this school year, according to an October report from the Government Accountability Office. Districts with high levels of poverty had the most cuts.
Higher poverty also means public schools may have to provide more services. For example, students living in poverty or just above qualify for subsidized meals.
The Census found that “school-age children, as well as school-age children in families in poverty, tend to be concentrated in school districts with a population of 20,000 or more.”
By region, the school-age median poverty rate was highest in the South, 26 percent.
Counties with poverty rates significantly above the national average for school-age children were found Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, West Virginia, Kentucky, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, and Texas.
The second highest rate was in the West, 19.2 percent, where Arizona, New Mexico, and Oregon posted poverty rates higher than the national average.
Meanwhile, “large numbers of counties in the Northeast and Midwest regions, as well as counties in Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming in the West had poverty rates for school-age children lower than the national average.”
Not all counties along the Atlantic coast fared well. Among the 25 largest counties, school-age poverty rates ranged from 7.3 percent in Suffolk County, New York, to 36.4 percent in Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania.”
Reporting by Lisa Lambert