The Persistence of Poverty: Using Longitudinal Data to Understand Gaps in Educational Outcomes

Awarded Scholars:
Susan Dynarski, University of Michigan
Katherine Michelmore, Syracuse University
Project Date:
Jul 2016
Award Amount:

Extensive research documents large and growing disparities in academic achievement and educational attainment between those at the top and bottom of the income distribution. Researchers have increasingly used state-level school administrative data to examine disparities in outcomes. Administrative data, compared to surveys, have near-universal population coverage, comprehensive information on achievement and attainment, and fewer problems with non-response and attrition. However, they lack detailed measures of socioeconomic status. The lone proxy measure for income in administrative records is students’ eligibility for federally-subsidized school meals. Children in households with income below 185% of poverty level are eligible for discounted meals, and those from households below 130% are eligible for free meals. 

Since nearly half of all students are eligible for discounted or free meals, whereas only a quarter of children are below the federal poverty level, eligibility for subsidized meals is a blunt measure of economic disadvantage. In order to gain a better understanding of the extent to which school lunch eligibility is a good proxy for income, Susan Dynarski and Katherine Michelmore will use longitudinal school administrative data from Michigan to differentiate students who are intermittently disadvantaged from those who are persistently disadvantaged. Using eligibility for school meals over time, they will distinguish three categories of disadvantage—persistent, intermittent, or never. This will allow them to document the timing and duration of children’s economic disadvantage from kindergarten through secondary school, and to understand how the duration and timing of disadvantage is associated with gaps in educational achievement and attainment. They will replicate their analysis using comparable administrative data from Florida.


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