The Missing White Poor

You may have heard about how last week, Paul Ryan made some unfortunate remarks about poverty, blaming it at least partly on, well, lazy black people: "We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular," Ryan said, "of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with." The reason many people got angry about this is that when we talk about poor white people, nobody suggests that it's a product of a pathology that lies within those particular people. Republicans may think persistent poverty in rural areas is a regrettable thing, but they aren't delivering lectures to those people about their "culture." It's kind of a generalized version of the fundamental attribution error—people like me are poor because of conditions outside themselves, while people unlike me are poor because of their inherent nature.

Ryan's words set off a predictable round of "Is Paul Ryan racist?" contemplation (see here, for example), and in response to that we have to remind ourselves that that is always the wrong question. It's impossible to know with certainty whether anyone is racist, because that requires looking into their heart. But much more importantly, it doesn't matter. What matters is what people say and do, not what lurks within their souls. You can say to Paul Ryan, "Here's what's wrong with what you said" without shouting "You're racist!" which not only doesn't convince anyone of anything, it only leads everyone who doesn't already agree with you to shut down and refuse to listen to anything else you have to say. Before we get to today's chart about race and poverty (oh yes, I do have a chart), you should play this classic from Jay Smooth every time you're tempted to call a politician a racist.

Now, on to our chart. Everyone knows that minority populations in America, particularly blacks and Hispanics, suffer from disproportionate levels of poverty. For the moment, we don't have to go into why that is and what can be done about it. I just want to note something that seldom gets mentioned: the actual racial makeup of America's poor. In fact, when I tried to find a chart laying it out to paste into this post, I couldn't find one. So I took poverty data and population data and made one myself (this is as of 2012):

The point of this chart is that even though blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately poor, the largest group of poor people in America is ... white people.

Despite that fact, when you say "the poor," what pops into most people's heads is an image of a black person, probably due in no small part to the fact that poverty in America is represented in the media as a largely black phenomenon (I'm not just saying that; there's research backing that up).

I'm not saying there aren't different kinds of poverty that might demand different solutions, given the particular economic challenges that characterize particular areas where certain people are concentrated. Though it's worth noting that many of the states with the highest poverty rates among whites also have the highest poverty rates among blacks. These are largely in the South, where Republican economic policies of low taxes and light regulation have, weirdly enough, not resulted in economic nirvana for all. But the point is that when we talk about "the poor," the image of a white person should be just as likely to come to your mind as the image of a black or Hispanic person. But I'll bet it isn't.

Finally, a programming note. All this week I'll be guest-blogging for Greg Sargent at the Washington Post, so my posting here will be somewhat lighter. Be sure to check both places!

Comments

The research that you use as a basis for your assertion about what pops into 'most people's heads' is more than twenty years old.
What you say may be right or it may be wrong but neither you nor I know which.

You may have heard about how last week, Paul Ryan made some unfortunate remarks about poverty, blaming it at least partly on, well, lazy black people

Since he never said anything regarding "black people", I couldn't read any further. I dislike Ryan as much as anyone, but I dislike intellectual dishonesty even more.

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(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

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