The country’s recent economic woes are still being felt in the classroom: The number of homeless American elementary and high school students has hit an all-time high, according to a new federal study released Thursday.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, in the 2011-2012 school year some 1,168,354 children ranging from preschool to 12th grade were without a home. That represents an overall increase of 72 percent since 2007, just before the global economic downturn.
A total of 43 states reported increases in the number of homeless students from the previous year. Some of the states with the most dramatic increases were Maine (58 percent), North Carolina (53 percent) and Michigan (42 percent), followed by California, New York, Texas and Florida.
“These numbers are devastating, but sadly, entirely predictable,” said Ruth White, executive director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare. “This report simply provides more evidence that the federal government has abandoned its commitment to fill yawning gaps in affordable housing options for low-income families. The consequences reach far beyond housing, beyond education, and into the job market.”
Just last month the U.S. Census Bureau released a survey that found that 16.1 million children — one in five — lived in poverty last year.
Since childhood poverty is directly tied to that of the child’s parents, the problem of student homelessness closely tracks the unemployment rate and the health of the national economy.
The U.S. Census Bureau report found that 46 million Americans lived below the poverty line in 2012.
“Children and youth who are homeless suffer and this data confirm what the homeless youth field has been seeing on the ground, the number of homeless youth and families in need of housing and services has been increasing as local and state supports have decreased,” said Darla Bardine, policy director of the National Network for Youth. “Congress needs to act with urgency in scaling up the housing, care and support these children and youth need to succeed.”
Researchers say the same financial turmoil that the parent experiences is typically passed down to the child. Without an adequate amount of food or decent place to sleep at night, the child cannot fully engage in schoolwork, and the probability of the child eventually dropping out of school becomes exponentially greater.
Various programs across school districts have been implemented to help address this issue.
For instance, in the past, students in the District of Columbia had to pay $30 per month for transportation to school. This year, however, students were permitted to ride the Metro system for free, easing the strain for many parents.
Hunger rates and nutrition standards for students are also major issues linked with homelessness. Nationwide, over 15 million children qualify for free or reduced lunch, and though the school week provides children with consistent meals, the weekend is often a period of extended hunger for students.
Homelessness is even a problem beyond high school. Activists say the number of college applicants indicating they were homeless was up again in 2013, to more than 58,000 students. And that does not count families who do not declare their status on college application forms.