BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- A study released last month by the Southern Education Foundation found that nearly half (48%) of the nation's 50 million public school students, and half or more of those in most Southern and some Western states, are now low income. The report based its findings on USDA figures for students in preschool through high school that qualified for federal free and reduced-price meal programs in the 2010-11 academic year. According to the federal guidelines, the income cap for these programs for a family of four was $40,793 in 2011. Figures for low-income students were most prominent in 17 states, including 13 in the South and four in the West, where half or more of the students could be defined as low income. By comparison, it was just a decade earlier that only four states in the country reported low-income students as the majority, indicating the figures have more than quadrupled since 2001. Mississippi had the highest percentage of low-income students, 71%. New Mexico, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Arkansas were also in the top five. Maryland and Virginia were the only states in the Southern region where low-income children did not make up a majority of public school students -- only about one-third. Arizona was the only state in the Southwest where less than half (45%) of all public school children were low income. Northeastern states had the lowest proportion of low-income students, but the nation's cities, including those in the Northeast, had some of the highest rates. Specifically, 60% of public school students in cities were low income in 2011, with low-income students making up at least half of enrollment in urban public schools in 38 out of 50 states. Again, Mississippi had the highest rates of low-income students in its urban areas -- a staggering 83%. Yet Northeastern cities were not that far behind, averaging 71%. "Addressing the problem starts with an understanding of the necessity to focus more on how public schools can be more effective in educating low-income students," said Steve Suitts, vice president of the Southern Education Foundation, in an email.
Suitts said making high-quality preschool available, as well as after-school and community programs for all grades regardless of income, could help close the achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers. "With such a large growing proportion across the regions and the nation, the education of low-income students is now an issue of growth, prosperity and quality of life for the entire nation," Suitts said.