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.
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.”
Sociologist Robert Ross directs the International Studies Stream at Clark University in Massachusetts.