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Capturing more than poverty: School free and reduced-price lunch data and household income

Working Paper Number CARRA-WP-2017-09
Thurston Domina, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Quentin Brummet, Nikolas Pharris-Ciurej, and Sonya R. Porter, U.S. Census Bureau; Andrew Penner, Emily Penner, and Tanya Sanabria, University of California, Irvine


Educational researchers often use National School Lunch Program (NSLP) data as a proxy for student poverty. Under NSLP policy, students whose household income is less than 130 percent of the poverty line qualify for free lunch and students whose household income is between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty line qualify for reduced-price lunch. Linking school administrative records for all 8th graders in a California public school district to household-level IRS income tax data, we examine how well NSLP data capture student disadvantage. We find both that there is substantial disadvantage in household income not captured by NSLP category data, and that NSLP categories capture disadvantage on test scores above and beyond household income.


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