We don’t hear much about poverty nowadays, partly because so many of us middle-aged, middle-class white people, including many of my fellow white liberals, think that poverty is mainly a result of the dysfunction of black families in the poor areas of big cities, and think that the answer is for them to listen to the sage advice of Bill Cosby about pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.
Maybe that’s why we don’t hear much about poverty any more, only the “struggling middle class” which, of course, really is struggling. It is all too easy to get caught up in this. Here’s a good article that provides a reality check. Lots of rural white people are poor, too.
Of the 46 million people living in poverty in America in 2010, the U.S. census revealed that 31 million were white. Ten million were black. Of the 49 million people without health insurance coverage, 37 million were white; 8 million were African American. Latinos of every race and Asian Americans represented the remaining largest ethnic groups.
The face of poverty in America is overwhelmingly white, but as sociologist and professor William O’Hare explains in a 2009 study on children in poverty, the white American poor, especially those in rural areas, are “forgotten.”
White Americans, poor and middle-class alike, receive the vast majority of tax-funded government assistance programs, from monthly assistance to Social Security to food stamps.
TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), the program that provides aid to single mothers, is the most well-known welfare program, but the truth is that Social Security and Medicare are also social welfare services, funded by tax dollars. To that end, nearly 70 percent of all benefits of these programs go to white people. In fact, since African Americans have lower life expectancy, many work and pay into the Social Security and Medicare programs through their tax dollars, only to have white Americans, who have a longer life expectancy, benefit from the income they’ve left behind.
O’Hare’s research in his 2009 report “The Forgotten Fifth: Child Poverty in Rural America,” reveals that 57 percent of rural poor children were white and 44 percent of all urban poor children were white. But theirs is a story rarely told, their faces hardly seen. High poverty rates for poor and working-class whites have worsened since the 2008 economic crisis. Rural white poverty was already more systemic than urban poverty. Poor whites are more likely to lack basic education levels and remain in poverty for generations.
O’Hare found that white Americans living in rural areas benefited the least from the economic boom of the 1990s. The parents were often underemployed, and this translated into deeper poverty levels for their children.
In December 2009, the New York Times published a series of related articles showing that poor whites across Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta and through the Midwest, Deep South and Texas borderlands were the highest percentage of Americans relying on the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), or food stamp, program.
According to the New York Times, 36 million Americans relied on food stamps. More than 24 million of them were white, 8 million were African American and 6 million were Hispanic of any race.
I’m making a two-pronged argument here. One is that poverty is not an issue of race, or rather, not just an issue of race. African-Americans still suffer racial discrimination, which still has its apologists. Poverty can’t be addressed on a racial basis. It requires a high-wage, full-employment economy, such as the United States enjoyed in the 1950s and 1960s, when rates of poverty were falling, not rising.
If you have five people looking for work for every job opening, then a large number of people are going to be unemployed, no matter what. Through your individual effort, you can increase the probability that it will be somebody else rather than yourself, but it is inevitable that somebody is going to lose out. If you have an economy based on sorting people into winners and losers, somebody is going to be the loser.
In the current bad economy, we’re all in the same boat. It is better to row together than to talk about who deserves to be thrown overboard.
My other argument is against the stereotype of the member of the black underclass as the representative black person. Prejudice is to take the worst members of any group, and to attribute their sins and failures to all members of the group. Thinking of black people in terms of poverty and social failure is a form of prejudice.
Click on Interesting Welfare Statistics for the complete article on race and welfare.
Click on Debunking the “Entitlement Society” Myth for a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities on who actually benefits from the federal government’s entitlement spending. Non-Hispanic whites, who are 64 percent of the population, receive 69 percent of the benefits.
Click on Racial discrimination continues to play a part in hiring decisions for a report on the black and white testers who proved that being black hurts your job chances worse than having a prison record.
To be clear, I think Bill Cosby’s advice is good advice for anyone, white or black. The greater the odds against you and the more injustice and discrimination you face, the more important it is to work hard, study and better yourself.