What do poor people look like?

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Can we have an honest conversation about the nation’s poor and near-poor? Can we discuss the subject as if we want to find solutions and not just pass judgment on the less fortunate?
If we were to have an honest conversation, one based on verifiable facts, hard data, empirical evidence, we wouldn’t use the “inartful” term “inner city,” as GOP star Paul Ryan did recently — serving up a phrase that suggests that poverty is primarily a condition limited to darker-hued citizens. That’s simply incorrect.
Getting it right matters if we care about policies that help people climb the ladder toward financial stability, if we want to fund programs that give folks a hand up. If we don’t really understand the problem, it’s hard to find the right solution. (If we only want to look down on the have-nots from our positions of superiority, making ill-informed judgments will suffice.)
As chairman of the House Budget Committee and an alleged GOP policy wonk, Ryan ought to know better; however, he is certainly not the only American to make wrong-headed assumptions about poverty and race. Since Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, which 50 years ago highlighted the abysmal living conditions of so many black Americans, many have assumed that poor equals black. That notion is woven through our politics.
But it’s wrong. As American Prospect writer Paul Waldman noted recently, 41 percent of the nation’s poor people are white. That’s a substantial plurality. Drawing on government data, Waldman pointed out that blacks comprise 23 percent of the nation’s poor, while Latinos account for 28 percent. (Other ethnic groups account for the rest.) So, to recap, 41 percent of the poor — close to half — are white, not black or brown.
But that’s not the public conversation we are having. The assumption — whether revealed in phrases such as “inner city” or not — is that poverty in America is a problem of black and brown “pathologies.” As long as so many citizens believe that, we’re not going to come up with policies that might help the poor improve their plight. (That’s especially true if you buy into the Reaganesque view that any government help simply makes the poor worse off.)
It’s easy enough to understand how that fallacious notion lodged itself so deeply into public consciousness. The chattering classes often speak of the “disproportionate” poverty among black Americans, and that leads to misunderstanding. Blacks account for only about 13 percent of the population but 23 percent of the nation’s impoverished; that burden has its roots in the nation’s unfortunate racial history.
The notion of poverty as a black problem is also exacerbated by the news media, which have done a very poor job of explaining the issue. Some of that stems from simple logistics: Most major news organizations are located in large urban areas, where the poor tend to be black and brown. It’s too much trouble to travel to rural areas, where the white poor are much more visible.
But prejudices among the news corps contribute to the myths. In the book “Why Americans Hate Welfare,” Yale political scientist Martin Gilens notes that about 60 percent of the poor people shown on network news and portrayed in the major news magazines between 1988 and 1992 were black.
Compounding that are the racial resentments of far too many white Americans, who simply insist on believing that poverty is a black thing. In their book, “Us Against Them: Ethnocentric Foundations of American Opinion,” political scientists Donald Kinder and Cindy Kam show that many conservative whites detest traditional “welfare” programs, such as food stamps, because they associate them with black recipients. Those same conservatives, however, support much more expensive entitlements such as Social Security.
“In defending and praising Social Security . . .political leaders say that (it) is for us: for the people, for our parents, for our children, for ourselves, for Americans, for us all. . . (In other words) Social Security is for white people,” they write.
Unfortunately, too many politicians, especially Republicans, are content to pander to stereotypes — as Ryan did — rather than confront voters with the facts: poverty is multi-racial, complex and demands a multi-pronged approach. And until we can get past our easy, but inaccurate assumptions, poverty will also remain widespread.

Comments

  1. Blake says:

    In general I agree with the content / intent of today’s column about the error of stereotyping the poor. However you contribute to the pandering of stereotypical mentality on two major fronts;

    First, you make a blanket statement that “many whites detest traditional “welfare” programs…”. I am a “conservative white” living in a rural area who sees poverty transcending racial lines. You state “many” detest welfare programs. You are pandering to emotions. I believe I speak for many of “us” in saying; 1) we support programs for those in true need who have proven they require help; 2) we DO “detest” abusers of tax-dollar funded welfare programs. We see people using food stamps as they use their high-end cell phones, wear the latest hot sneakers and then hop into their cars (all luxuries that we paid for after we paid our own rent and bought our own food)? We see a misguided government that mandates drug testing for government employees but panders to the pressure of welfare recipient advocates as a condition of assistance eligibility.

    Second, you state that we “conservatives” partake in a support competition between “welfare programs” and the “expensive entitlement such as Social Security”. By strict definition, both are “entitlements” but there is one LARGE difference; Welfare programs are funded with tax dollars while Social Security is funded by dollars placed into a “savings” account by those who WORK! You pander to current government “entitlement” mentality and propaganda by stating there is a “support” difference between these two vastly different programs and thus implying they are in funding competition.

    • RUBY says:

      Blake thank you I agree with everything you said.. I am tired of so called journalist and career politicians telling me how I feel about the crap they spew each day. They do not live in areas that have the druggies the lazy people or the young girls that have a baby every year and each with a different DNA..Our government rewards people to be lazy and it is sad.. I have paid taxes my entire life and now have to pay it on my Social Security. The government never contributed 1 penny to my Social Security.. I am 62 years old and I have to pay taxes so lazy people can sit on their behinds and get the things I can’t afford…

  2. adam darst says:

    It seems as if the author is simply projecting. You have become the monster that you chase. I applaud your attempt at clarifying misconceptions about poverty, but your use of generalizations based on race and political affiliation are the exact ignorance you attempt to shine a light on. Your value of you message is degraded, not in its content, but in the obvious and ugly hypocrisy of its delivery.

  3. Beverly Fraud says:

    If Cynthia Tucker really cared about the poor, she would have called for Beverly Hall’s resignation back in 2001 when the AJC’s Paul Donsky BLEW THE LID off widespread, systemic cheating in APS.

    But even though teachers and other concerned citizens contacted Ms. Tucker to confirm the obvious truth of Donsky’s reporting she chose to sit on the story for close to a decade.

    In other words, despite her protestations to the contrary, she was a silent enabler of Beverly Hall.

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