Most people understand that there is growing inequality in the United States. The wealthiest Americans today control a much larger share of the total wealth of the country than they did in past decades, while increasing numbers of people struggle to meet basic household expenses. This divide is widening in our own community too. The number of people living in poverty in Lehigh County has grown by more than 13% in just the last decade. A key measure of poverty in East Penn is the number of student eligible for free or subsidized lunches, based on how the income of their parents compares to the federal poverty line (currently $24,300 for a family of 4). As you can see from the graph below, the proportion of East Penn students registered for free or subsidized lunches has more than doubled in the last ten years, from 10.9% in 2006 to 25.8% in 2016.
Hundreds of research studies show how children from families in poverty enter school with fewer language and math skills than children from wealthier families. As just one example: kids from poorer families have been exposed to millions fewer words than kids from richer families when they enter school as kindergartners.
This inequality directly affects the bottom line of our school district budget. The number of teachers, teacher’s aides, special education programs, counseling, and other services necessary to educate all kids in the district can be traced directly to increasing needs brought on by growing community inequality. Inequality quite literally costs local taxpayers money.
The exact price tag is impossible to pin down precisely. But we do have good estimates of how much school inequality costs Pennsylvania residents in general. A recent study by Temple University and the RAND Corporation shows that eliminating the achievement gap between poorer and wealthier students in the state would increase the state’s overall economic output by as much as $3.1 billion in the first year, and $43.5 billion over the next decade (just as a point of comparison, the deficit in the budget passed last year by Pennsylvania lawmakers is just over $1 billion).
People are often puzzled why the costs of public education continue to rise. An important piece of that puzzle is the impact of growing inequality on school resources and school needs. We live in a community that is much more unequal than when you and I went to school. And we all pay for it.
Inequality and poverty are only one piece of the larger budgetary puzzle in our district. To read the other pieces in this budget series, check out: