What do poor people look like?
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.