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The Center for Public Integrity is the only national investigative newsroom solely focusing on the causes and effects of inequality. Telling these stories well takes time, resources and expertise.

Investigating inequality often requires employing the tools of social scientists to do original analyses. These techniques have been used by newsrooms to show disparities in home mortgage lending, jury selection, student achievement and more. 

For Public Integrity’s recent investigation Unhoused and Undercounted, Amy DiPierro and Corey Mitchell used those techniques to show that hundreds of thousands of homeless students likely have not been counted by their school districts — despite a 1987 federal law requiring them to do so. When students aren’t counted, they can’t get access to transportation if they move out of the district, leading to more missed class time, dropouts and reduced learning. It also means they don’t get other services, such as referrals for health care and housing.

This investigation breaks new ground because while there has been reporting about undercounts of homeless students over the years, no media outlet has tried to quantify the gap within school districts nationwide.

Unhoused and Undercounted

Federal law requires that public schools assist homeless students to help break what could become an inescapable cycle of hardship. But many of the students who need that aid fall through the cracks.

To get there, reporters talked with experts to develop a statistical model that would estimate just how many students had fallen through the cracks.

To gauge whether school districts are identifying homeless students, researchers and some education officials estimate that at least 1 in 20 students qualifying for free- or reduced- price lunch experience homelessness. Reporters applied that figure to existing data, allowing them to estimate the gap between the expected number of homeless students and the actual reported numbers. The difference nationwide: about 300,000 children and youth.

Previous research also had shown a relationship between measures related to poverty, such as the poverty rate and the ratio of household income to the poverty line, and housing instability. That relationship didn’t surprise us. What did was that in many states, reporters found no relationship between three separate poverty measures and the rate of homeless students. That’s a sign of just how bad the undercounting is.

Zeroing in more closely, reporters identified districts that reported much lower numbers than they should have, given the rate of students impacted by poverty. 

One example: DeSoto County, Mississippi, identified fewer than 300 homeless students. Based on its share of students eligible for free- or reduced-price lunches, the district would be expected to have three times the number it reported.

By comparison, reporters found, Mississippi’s Vicksburg Warren School District identified about as many homeless students as DeSoto despite having less than half as many children eligible for free- or reduced-price lunches.

As with any data-driven investigation, there are caveats. There are cases where homelessness and poverty may not actually be closely connected, such as in communities where wildfires destroyed homes. Many other factors in addition to poverty can cause families and youth to experience housing instability.

The analysis also found that homelessness disproportionately affects students of color and disabled students. 

This type of accountability journalism drives change and provides policymakers and the public with evidence needed to support those changes. As one expert told reporters: 

“You’re giving us a clue as to the magnitude of this problem. And that’s really the important part here.”

What’s equally important is that this work did not stop with our newsroom. Public Integrity extends the reach of its investigations to other newsrooms. The reporting and audience teams shared the data, notes and graphics with dozens of local news outlets. The team made complex data understandable and held regular office hours for local newsrooms, many of whom are better positioned to hold local officials accountable. 

If you want to dig into all the details of the analysis, check out their white paper. 

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Jennifer LaFleur joined CPI from the Investigative Reporting Workshop where she was data editor. She...