Local schools’ free, reduced lunch numbers decline
Robust economy, fear both cited for 12% drop since 2015
EAGLE — Employment and wages are up and the number of local public school students receiving free and reduced lunches is down.
The number of Eagle County Schools students receiving free and reduced lunch is down from 42% in the 2015-16 school year to 30% in the current school year.
Through the same period, Eagle County’s unemployment rate has hovered around 2.5%. The feds consider 3%-4% as full employment, Mark Hoblitzell with Workforce Colorado said.
Labor shortages have also applied some upward pressure to wages, according to data from Workforce Colorado. The average Eagle County hourly wage was $23.33 per hour in the third quarter of 2019, or $48,516 annually.
That still lags behind the statewide average hourly wage of $29.25 or $60,840 annually, according to Workforce Colorado data.
According to federal guidelines, students are eligible for free and reduced lunch if they’re in a family of four with a household income of $47,638 or less. The poverty rate for a family of four is $25,750.
If students qualify for free and reduced lunch, school districts are reimbursed $2.09 per meal for breakfast, $3.65 for lunch or supper and 85 cents for a snack.
County assistance numbers also down
Case numbers for food assistance per month/per household are also down, from 636 in 2015 to 509 in 2020, said Megan Burch, Eagle County’s human services director.
They don’t have a good way of tracking why. It’s anecdotal, Burch said.
Yes, unemployment is low, but jobs paying livable wages are difficult to find, she said.
That forces many into working multiple jobs, Burch said, and that extra income will make them ineligible for public assistance such as family assistance and food assistance.
“Even the people who are working cannot afford childcare,” Burch said.
Also, no matter how often people in the country are told that applying for assistance does not mean ICE will come knocking on their doors, many either do not understand or do not believe it.
“There is a climate of fear among our immigrant community,” Burch said.
Money, or more than that?
Could it really be as simple as employment and wages?
Maybe, but maybe not.
While some cite the robust economy for the decline, others point to changes in federal law and fear among those in the country illegally. However, even those in the country illegally can apply for free and reduced lunch through their local public schools. The information is not shared with immigration officials, Daniel Dougherty, the school district’s chief communications officer said.
In other words, some people won’t apply because they’re afraid Immigration and Customs Enforcement will find them and they might be deported. That’s not how the program works, Marian McDonough, regional director with Catholic Charities said.
“People might be pulling back from benefits to which they’re entitled,” McDonough said.
On the other hand, they might not be eligible because their household incomes put them above the limit.
“The reality is that people are working,” McDonough said.
Changes in Public Charge law
Steve Coyer chairs the Vail Valley Foundation’s education committee. He said he was speaking with a local school official and learned that some families had stopped signing up for free and reduced lunch because of fear over changes in federal immigration policy. Families are fearful of being recorded as “public charges,” with potential negative immigration consequences in the future, Coyer wrote in an email.
Federal regulations define a “public charge” as an alien who has received public benefits for more than 12 months within any three-year period. It’s aimed at promoting self-sufficiency, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Versions of the law have been around since the 1880s. Since 1996, federal laws have required that aliens seeking to come to or remain in the United States, temporarily or permanently, must be self-sufficient.
“Self-sufficiency is central to the American identity and has defined generations of hardworking immigrants seeking opportunity in the United States,” Matthew Bourke with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Department of Homeland Security said in an email.