Race, Poverty, and Stereotypes

The Census Bureau compiles statistics on poverty and the poverty rate in the United States. Their chart for 1959 to 2015 shows 13.5% of Americans living in what is officially designated as poverty, which translates to approximately 43.1 million Americans. [Census pdf]  Poverty in this country is measured as a function of the number of members in a household with a range of $12,082 for a single person to $49,177 for a family of nine or more people as of 2015.  [Link to Chart]

The Numbers

The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that 9% of white families are “in poverty,” 24% of African American families, 21% of Hispanic American families and 14% of ethnic groups categorized as “other.”    Other numbers to keep in mind: As of this morning we have 325,178,412 people living in this country, and 82,184,000 households.  [Census dwnld]  77.1% of our population as of July 2015 was white (61.6% not Hispanic or Latino); 13.3% African American; 1.2% Native American; 17.6% Hispanic or Latino; and, 5.6% Asian American. [Census]  Thus, “yes,” the percentage of the total African American and Hispanic American families in poverty is higher than the percentage of white families in poverty – but to get a more accurate picture of the “face of poverty” it should be noted:

76% of African American families are NOT living in poverty; 79% of our Hispanic or Latino families are NOT living in poverty… so when the reporter on the television starts droning on about  income, poverty, and other statistics and the film rolls on with the stereotyped footage of the “inner city,” we need to recall that we’re looking at what mostly white media producers think poverty looks like.

The Persistence of Prejudice

The reality is that if a person is single, living in a central city, female, member of an ethnic minority group,  and southern, then there’s the likelihood that cuts in social safety net programs will be the most damaging.  [IRPHowever, the point needs to be made yet again: “Social scientists and others have long made the observation that the media over-emphasizes people of color in coverage of poverty and government benefits.”  [Root]  Not certain about this? Start with the Luther, Kennedy, Combs-Ormes study for the University of Tennessee, of media coverage from 1993 to 2000.  Add the American Progress report on stereotypes in poverty policy published in 2012.   It isn’t too difficult to surmise how we’ve moved from poverty policy based on the needs of the ‘deserving white widow’ to the African American welfare queen (who never existed) in modern political discussions.

The media attention has a history:

“…starting around 1965, the discourse about the War on Poverty became much more negative, and that was for a few reasons, one of them being that programs that the administration had been promoting were now out in the field, and people, especially conservatives, were starting to take aim at them. And the media started to portray those programs much more negatively as being abused by people who didn’t really need them, as being inefficient and so on. And it’s really right at that time — and it’s a very dramatic shift in the media portrayal — that the imagery shifts from poor white people, positively portrayed, to poor black people, negatively portrayed.” [Moyers/Gilens]

This stereotyping plays into a narrative among a decreasing number of whites about the motivations of African Americans.  While support for overt discrimination has declined, some of the underlying attitudes may not have diminished as much as might be desirable.   There appears to be a gulf between the theoretical and the practical among white Americans about the role of government in promoting equality: “In general, though, apart from these nuanced differences across types of implementation, this set of questions makes it clear that whites are more willing to support the principles of equality than commit resources to its implementation.” [Illinois Edu

In terms of racial stereotyping there’s good and bad news, the good news first:

“The overall patterns for stereotypes show that between 1990 and 2004, there was a striking decline in the percentage of whites who report negative stereotypes of blacks. But after that point, the levels have remained constant (see Figure 9 (W) above). For example, in 1990, two out of three whites rated whites as harder-working than blacks; a percentage that declined steadily until 2004, when the figure was just about half that level (37 percent). From 2004 to 2014, though, the percentage of whites endorsing the stereotype ranged from a high of 42 percent in 2006 to a low of 34 percent in 2014. The belief that blacks are less intelligent than whites similarly declined from 57 percent in 1990 to just over one in four in 2004 and since then endorsement has stabilized at 23 to 27 percent.” [ Illinois Edu]

And, now the bad news:

“On the one hand, these results about the declining use of stereotypes may provide some reason for optimism. Whites are less willing (in a survey interview) to draw sharp distinctions between racial groups on the traits of intelligence and laziness. However, caution is advised against making too much of these findings. First, social desirability pressures may be particularly at work on these kinds of items. It has become increasingly socially unacceptable to admit to believing in racial differences of this type, and thus surveys may under-estimate levels of stereotype endorsement. Indeed, evidence from laboratory studies of “unconscious” stereotyping suggest that stereotypes continue to shape how whites think about race and racial groups (Fazio et al., 1995; McConnell and Leibold, 2001).”  [ Illinois Edu]

Therefore, when that tape depicting “inner city life” rolls behind the reporter commenting on recent statistical releases on income inequality, social safety net programs, or economic opportunity it rolls before a white audience ready to accept the theoretical desirability of equality, but not so anxious to implement policies designed to assist people who are still held to be “lazier.”

Thus the White Face of Poverty, obscured by the Black image of inner city disadvantage, perhaps allows some voters to continue their illogical dependence on the idea that one can be theoretically pure while being a rugged individual, and demanding others be the same: “Presumably, then, voters imagine that pledges to slash government spending mean cutting programs for the idle poor, not things they themselves count on. And this is a confusion politicians deliberately encourage.” [Krugman]

Meanwhile, there’s Owsley County, Kentucky, home to about 4,461 people, of whom 98.3% are white, with a median household income of $20,985 per year, and 42.4% of its population living in poverty. [Census]

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