A project of the
Institute for Policy Studies

Poverty More than a Matter of Black and White

Far too many Americans still see poverty and poor people through a racial prism that distorts demographic realities — and undermines efforts to narrow income inequality.

By Robert Ross

In mid-September the Census Bureau released its latest report on Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States, current through 2011. Poverty as officially measured, the Census researchers found, went largely unchanged from the year before, though household income did fall.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

The new data also show, as they’ve shown since these statistics first became available in the 1960s, that black people in the United States have a much higher risk of living in poverty than white people. But poverty, a deeper look at the data shows, does not simply boil down to a matter of black and white.

Census Bureau researchers base their poverty figures on a market-basket approach, with a formula derived originally from the cost of an emergency food budget and then corrected for family size, age, and inflation. In 2011, under this formula, families of four rated as poor if their income fell below $23,000.
Many people — including many college students who enroll in courses about poverty and social policy — assume that black means poor. Why this assumption? Massive racial inequality certainly plays a major role.

To take but two examples: Black household income stood at only 55 percent of white household income in 2011, an even smaller share than 1999’s 63 percent. Black unemployment in August 2012  ran twice white unemployment, 14.1 to 7.2  percent.

Black people currently make up about 13.8 percent of the U.S. population, and about 27 percent of these Americans fall below the poverty line. The population overall rates as about 15 percent poor. So black people in the United States face nearly twice the risk of living in poverty as average Americans.

This elevated risk reflects past and current institutional practices that put blacks and other minorities at a disadvantage. But it’s also true that almost three-quarters of black incomes do not fall below the poverty line. Collapsing poor and black as if all poor were black and all blacks poor turns the “poverty” problem into a “race” problem.

The white poverty rate does run much lower than the black rate, just under 10  percent, one-third of the black rate. But the white poor outnumber the black poor considerably, 19 to 7.8 million. White people make up 42 percent of America’s poor, black people about 28 percent.

The basic numbers don’t change when we look at people living in extreme poverty, in households making less than 50  percent of the meager poverty line. Of the 20 million people who live at this alarming level of want and deprivation, about 42 percent are white, 27  percent black.

These data have political implications that racial stereotyping usually shroud from public view.  Many white people who don’t live anywhere near poverty, even many who consider themselves liberal, think blacks compose most of the poor. Large numbers of these white Americans feel no emotional connection to the problems poor people face. They perceive poverty as a problem of some other community, not their own.

If those white Americans who felt this way actually had to confront the demographic reality of poverty, if they came to understand that white people make up the single largest group of the poor, how white America thinks about poverty and policy might start changing.

Well-meaning white Americans have for decades been aware that black people face the risk of poverty than whites. But “poverty,” we all need to understand, is more and different than “race.”

  • UGhhhh

    this information is misleading at best “White people make up 42 percent of America’s poor, black people about 28 percent.” White people make up 78% of the US population. So of course there would be more poor white folk than black folk out of total poor folk. THERE IS A HUGE PROBLEM IN THIS COUNTRY WITH RACE AND POVERTY. ignoring the racial component is naive at best and a symptom of white privilege at worst.

    • Eric McCowan

      Sure there are more blacks that are poor (percentage). There are more blacks that rely on government handouts as a way of ‘earning a living’. The question that needs to be asked is why? Why do more blacks live in poverty. I do not think that it’s because they would rather get a handout instead of working. It could be because of racism and discrimination in the workforce, so much so that black people give up on work. I don’t know. I’m not black so I cannot speak from experience.

      • Destiny

        Most people who receive welfare are white. Blacks do NOT make up a larger percentage if the poor than whites. If you read the article you would have learned that WHITES make up the largest percentage of poor people in this country (25.4% to 43%). This means that the majority of poor people ARE non hispanic whites. Yes it is true that the number of blacks living in poverty is higher than it should be. It should be closer to 14-15% but still that doesn’t t as ke away that fact that almost 75% of the poor in this country is NOT black and almost half of our nation’s poor are non Hispanic whites so why do blacks and Hispanics get blamed for the bulk if welfare abuse and poverty when whites are the biggest offenders?

        • Eric McCowan

          I’m not sure what that is. It’s actually a very good question.

  • don bruce

    It would be a most interesting follow up to this article to analyze the percentage of scholarship monies going to african american and latino.(both at the federal and state level and the NGO communities..Most universities do not honor the notion of equality of opportunity and also perceive that the vast majority of the problem is a racial one…we need to make the american dream available to all ….even those who are caucasian.

    • Destiny

      Many of these scholarship are awarded to blacks and latinos through PRIVATE organizations and corporations who are legally entitled to award them to whoever they please. Also, the number of scholarships awarded to minorities are still not large enough in number to support the millions of minority college students out there. Most still have to rely on federal student aid just like the white students

  • Ozzy

    So if the ‘Americans’ knew there are so many poor White people maybe the “Americans” would care more about the Brown poor people. Why don’t you just say we White poor don’t count because there are enough Whites who are not poor. Come to think of it, that is just what you said.

  • chuck

    misleading information. you have to show % of blacks in poverty vs per of white

    in poverty TAKEN independantly. the % of the white population in poverty is

    far less than black. far less. this idiot knows this.

    • Jay Jay

      people currently make up about 13.8 percent of the U.S. population, and
      about 27 percent of these Americans fall below the poverty line. – See
      more at:

      • destiny

        Which Still doesn’t take away the fact that 42 percent of our nation’s poor are non Hispanic whites. The stats are not misleading. The point of the article is that you have all these ignorant white people blaming blacks for milking all the welfare dollars and not pulling their weight when the majority of government assistance is consumed by whites. Sure the number of blacks should be lower but blacks do not make up the majority of the poor and most blacjs do not live below the poverty line

    • Jay Jay

      white poverty rate does run much lower than the black rate, just under
      10 percent, one-third of the black rate. But the white poor outnumber
      the black poor considerably, 19 to 7.8 million. White people make up 42
      percent of America’s poor, black people about 28 percent. – See more at:

  • vetri

    Poverty has no color.

    If you want use color for poor population, ignore population of any color which is not poverty.
    In this case, we should always talk like “White population in poverty is higher than black population” rather than individual percent among different colors.

    Latter perspective is racist

  • CJ

    This reporter has all the information and facts, yet is incapable of using reason and is instead accessing centuries of prejudice and discriminatory beliefs that have altered the functioning his DNA, making it impossible to access his reasoning abilities, when it comes to minorities.

    • Destiny

      No you’re incapable of understanding that most people are white not black

  • Rod

    I think most of you didn’t fully read the article or quickly inferred the wrong thing. (Judging from your attacks on the author) The author is basically saying that politically blacks are being associated with poverty (which is misleading and untrue)…so when a policy is being created to address issues related to the poor (to help improve their quality of life) adversarial politicians will (and have effectively) used the “poor black” as a bogeyman to convince poor whites that the proposed policy in question (that could benefit them) will only help poor blacks…like Reagan’s “welfare queen” or willie Horton exaggerated narrative to engender support for his (extreme conservative) narrative or agenda…the point is while blacks have a severely disproportionate poverty rate it is ignorant to believe policies designed to help the poor will NOT have a positive impact on white communities given the sheer volume of whites in poverty

    • Tricia

      Thank you for clarifying this for me. I was also confused about what the author was saying. I thought he was trying to assert that there is a greater percentage of poor white than poor black people just because the number of whites is greater. But your comment cleared it up for me.