More than half of the children attending U.S. public schools come from low income backgrounds, according to a new study by the Southern Education Foundation.
Using data collected from the National Center for Education Statistics, the group found 51% of public school students from kindergarten to 12th grade qualify for the federal program that provides free or subsidized lunches to students from families living in poverty or near-poverty.
The SEF said the rate of poor students in public schools hasn't been higher in more than half a century, calling its findings "a defining moment in America's public education."
In 1989, less than a third of public school students came from poor backgrounds, the SEF said, but the number has since exploded.
"In 40 of the 50 states, low income students comprised no less than 40 percent of all public schoolchildren," the SEF said. "In 21 states, children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches were a majority of the students in 2013."
Mississippi was the worst performing state, with 71% of public school students coming from low income families, while in New Mexico the figure stood at 68%.
"We've all known this was the trend, that we would get to a majority, but it's here sooner rather than later," Michael A. Rebell of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College at Columbia University told the Washington Post.
"A lot of people at the top are doing much better, but the people at the bottom are not doing better at all. Those are the people who have the most children and send their children to public school," Rebell said.