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July 19, 2007

Edwards, Race, and Poverty

I've got a post at Tapped that folks here -- particularly the pro- and anti-Edwards types -- might be interested in. As a general point, I tend to think that it's a really good thing to untether discussions of poverty from discussions of race as much as possible, though I can see how others would disagree. It's worth noting, though, that the plurality of those beneath the poverty line in this country are, indeed, white, as this graph shows:


While it's certainly true that rates of poverty are shockingly high in the African-American community, they do not, in fact, represent a majority, a plurality, or even a quarter of the impoverished. That "poverty" became a synonym from "Black' was a grave injustice, and has been a real obstacle to legislative progress on the issue.

July 19, 2007 in Charts | Permalink


There is probably something to be said for visible poverty, however. I imagine african americans are a higher percentage of the urban poor: the group that newspaper columnists and other movers and shakers tend to see.

Posted by: mikem | Jul 19, 2007 3:03:18 PM

As someone noted on another thread, a quick trip through the hills of Arkansas would cure anyone of the delusion that poverty is confined to the African American community.

Posted by: W.B. Reeves | Jul 19, 2007 3:09:05 PM

That "poverty" became a synonym from "Black' was a grave injustice, and has been a real obstacle to legislative progress on the issue.

On the other hand, this synonymy was great for a certain reactionary politics, not necessarily Southern but certainly still flourishing here. The dominance of the Republican party in Georgia and South Carolina is incomprehensible with out it.
And W.B. Reeves, my neck of the Southern Appalachians is experiencing a relative and sustained boom (for the last decade or so...)Poverty here is mostly white, although there is an increasing Hispanic component.

Posted by: MR. Bill | Jul 19, 2007 3:40:13 PM

If you remove a focus from rates, you ignore special factors that can account for poverty in a subgroup. I think that's extremely important. The factors of white poverty can be very different from factors in african-american poverty.

I think the focus on black males by researchers as diverse as Mead and Holtzer are important. You wouldn't get that breakout if you ignore the race and instead just focus on the macro issue of poverty.

I think the fact that the largest group of poor or whites is interesting, but doesn't do a whole lot at the end of the day. Whites have less than a third of the poverty rate of African Americans and well less than half that of hispanics.

Posted by: Hederman | Jul 19, 2007 3:48:48 PM

I think the urban/rural divide is huge. Frankly, the media just doesn't give attention to the latter like it does the former. And actually, while there are a lot of rural whites in poverty, there are a lot of rural blacks in poverty as well. And while race is important, there are very real distinctions between the urban black poor and the rural black poor, just like there are between the urban black poor and the rural white poor. I've given no money to a candidate and I support no one in particular at this moment, but the reason I'm so defensive over Edwards is I don't think any other contemporary politician actually understands this as well as he does.


Posted by: Steven | Jul 19, 2007 4:04:25 PM

From a public policy standpoint, the fact that whites are a plurality of the poor is irrelevant. Politically, it makes anti-poverty measures easier. Someone looked at state-by-state spending on poverty. After correcting for state income and other factors, the states with few minorities spent more on poverty than states with more minorities. The reason is a substantial number of voters don't want tax dollars going to minorities. If you convince people you'll help out more whites than any other single group, that would ultimately help fight poverty.

Posted by: American Citizen | Jul 19, 2007 4:16:15 PM

The graph does support the common view that being poor is associated with being a member of an ethnic minority.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 19, 2007 4:47:26 PM

But white poverty is largely rural poverty, right? Regrettably, rural poverty is MUCH tougher to crack than urban poverty.

Posted by: Steve | Jul 19, 2007 5:06:03 PM

I believe that discussions of Race and Poverty need not be dependent on one another, but I find that its dangerous, particularly to discussions of racism, to remove one from the other completely. Its important that people recognize that the face of poverty is nothing like the general public perception. I was recently discussing welfare with someone who was shocked to learn that the whitest state in the country, Maine, also has the highest percentage of people on federal assistance. In other words, the perception of “black welfare mothers” is not only a racist oversimplification, but its also quite inaccurate. On the other hand, Maine performs better in several obvious metrics of economic justice, such as health care access because it is easier to provide access to a homogenous population, particularly when that population represents the racial group that is most empowered in the given society. So the discussion becomes complicated when we look at some of the most meaningful mitigating factors in poverty – education, health care, housing, jobs, criminal justice, etc – where race plays a crucial role in determining differences in access and quality.

Even forgetting those factors and looking at the pure economics, we cannot forget that the black population represents 12% of the population of the US, yet that rate doubles when we look at the population under the poverty line in the US. Thus a nuanced approach that realistically confronts poverty as an issue afflicting a wide variety of races and ethnicities, but also recognizes the unequal application of it is necessary. An honest discussion of both problems needs to understand that indeed there are many poor white people and also that wealthy black people face racism, thus neither problem is dependent on the other. But, having said that, any discussion also needs to acknowledge the disturbing links between the two wherein structural racism reinforces black (and Latino) poverty at disproportionate rates and that this poverty leads to a lack of agency to then fight racism. Its important to be able to see these issues as different and have discussions accordingly, but the moment we forget (or willingly forgo) the connection, we are weakening the ability to fight both.

Posted by: Mattie | Jul 19, 2007 5:16:04 PM

but the moment we forget (or willingly forgo) the connection, we are weakening the ability to fight both.

I hardly think anyone is suggesting this Mattie but your concern is valid for the reason that racism has historically been the wedge used to derail efforts aiding the poor overall. There does seem to be a tendency afoot towards attempting to finesse matters of race by speaking entirely in economic terms. This has the attraction of purportedly innoculating the policy discussion from racebaiting. Nothing could be further from reality.

Attempts to ignore the contradictions posed by racism only insure that advocates for economic justice will be disarmed when their opponents exploit racist memes in order to attack their proposals.

Posted by: W.B. Reeves | Jul 19, 2007 5:55:46 PM

An interesting study would be to look at poverty rates and race since the end of the Civil War. I would imagine the black poverty rate has a different pattern from other minorities and whites. General poverty levels probably follow similar historic trends amongst all non-black groups, with percentages increasing during periods of high immigration or general economic difficulty, but then leveling out over a generation. Black poverty probably shows a different path due to the structural nature of racism and its policies.

Can anyone recommend a good book that deals with this topic?

Posted by: Ricky | Jul 20, 2007 2:11:40 PM

But the percentages of the poor within racial/ethnic groups is the difference. 44% of poor people may be white, but only b/w 10-20% of white people are poor, whereas those numbers approach almost 50% of African-Americans, if I remember correctly (I really should track down the actual stats, I know). Given poor people have far less political power in this country, and how racially and ethnically residentially segregated our country is, non-poor whites are unlikely to live near poor people of any color, incl. other whites. Meanwhile, African-Americans are more likely to live in racially homogeneous but economically heterogeneous neighborhoods, making poverty a much more relevant issue in their lives, even if they are not poor themselves. (I don't know equivalent data on Hispanics or other ethnic groups, unfortunately). Furthermore, the wealth of whites is exponentially higher than African-Americans, and Hispanics, and thus middle-class status in these latter populations are much more tenuous and less affluent than among the white middle class.

It is ill-advised for policy wonks and their blogging publics to separate race and ethnicity from issues of class, poverty and opportunity.

Posted by: Leigh | Jul 23, 2007 10:34:11 PM

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