Are any white people poor?

Today’s New York Times lead story, “Millions of Poor Are Left Uncovered by Health Law,” reports on the devastating effect that states’ decisions not to expand Medicaid is having on poor people.  This article is accompanied by an image – on the jump page 18 in print and featured online – of two poor families, one in Mississippi and one in Texas.  Neither family is white.  

The imagery leads the reader to presume that white people are unaffected by the failure to expand Medicaid and also perpetuates the general stereotype that most poor people are Black or Latino.  The census figures released in 2013 tell a different story:  18.9 million non-Hispanic whites live in poverty and 8.4 million live in deep poverty.  The next largest demographic group living in poverty is Latino – with 13.6 million living in poverty and 5.4 million living in deep poverty.  The smallest group of people living in poverty – by over 8 million — are Black people, with 10.9 million living in poverty and 5.1 living in deep poverty.  These numbers are staggering and shameful.  And it is true that a larger proportion of African Americans and Latinos live in poverty than whites by a significant margin.  However, the decision to depict only Black and Latino families in an article about poverty is itself problematic on a number of fronts.

Living in poverty should not be seen as an individual or group failure.   Most of us have lived in poverty at some point in our own lives or in our families’ history.  And undoubtedly the authors of the article and the editors who chose the picture have sympathy for poor people and hope that their news story and the image will elicit concern and moral outrage.   This result is unlikely.  Instead, research in social psychology suggests that news stories and images of this sort generally have exactly the opposite effect.

In an article entitled Justifying Inequality:  A Social Psychological Analysis of Beliefs about Poverty and the Poor,  Heather Bullock at the University of California, Santa Cruz explains that:  “single mothers and ethnic minorities, most notably African Americans, are the public face of poverty. Consequently, poverty is viewed not only as a “minority” problem (Gilens 1999; Quadagno 1994) but a reflection of weak sexual mores and the decline of the nuclear family (Lind 2004; Orloff 2002). Stereotypes about the poor and ethnic minorities mirror each other with intersecting characterizations including laziness, sexual promiscuity, irresponsible parenting, disinterest in education, and disregard for the law.”  So the imagery in the NYT article and the discussion of the particular effects on single mothers and “poor blacks” simply confirms negative stereotypes.   And the stereotypes are not rooted in fact.    The vast majority of African Americans and Latinos in the United States — over 70% — are not poor.

This article and many others in the media contribute to a set of negative stereotypes about people of color and render invisible the enormous numbers of whites who are poor.  Sadly, the combined effect, as Bullock explains, appears to be a growing tolerance for economic inequality and a willingness to support decisions that harm the poor (such as the rejection of Medicaid expansion).

The negative stereotypes, as I will discuss in future posts, underlie a set of psychological phenomena such as implicit bias, that underlie discriminatory behavior even among those with egalitarian values and create significant obstacles for progress toward racial equality.   As an academic and  as a civil rights litigator in my previous life, I have focused on legal and policy change as a means toward racial equality.  More recently, I have been part of a consortium, the American Values Institute, linking social scientists with lawyers, legal academics, and the media to recognize the significance of culture.  Law, as we all know, is in part a creature of culture.  So long as our culture is infused with distorted facts and images about race, law reform is a vastly more difficult task.


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6 Responses

  1. Orin Kerr says:

    I disagree. As I read the article, its choice of two families does not reflect stereotypes that poor people are black. Instead, it is designed to reflect the argument raised by the article, which is that that the failure of Republicans to expand Medicaid at the state level is disproportionately harming African-Americans because many poor African-Americans live in GOP-dominated states. Moreover, the article suggests that the framing of the story as being about race is one that civil rights leaders are proposing but that Republicans strongly oppose.

    From the article:

    The disproportionate impact on poor blacks introduces the prickly issue of race into the already politically charged atmosphere around the health care law. Race was rarely, if ever, mentioned in the state-level debates about the Medicaid expansion. But the issue courses just below the surface, civil rights leaders say, pointing to the pattern of exclusion.

    Every state in the Deep South, with the exception of Arkansas, has rejected the expansion. Opponents of the expansion say they are against it on exclusively economic grounds, and that the demographics of the South — with its large share of poor blacks — make it easy to say race is an issue when it is not.

    . . .

    Blacks are disproportionately affected, largely because more of them are poor and living in Southern states. In all, 6 out of 10 blacks live in the states not expanding Medicaid. In Mississippi, 56 percent of all poor and uninsured adults are black, though they account for just 38 percent of the population.

    Dr. Aaron Shirley, a physician who has worked for better health care for blacks in Mississippi, said that the history of segregation and violence against blacks still informs the way people see one another, particularly in the South, making some whites reluctant to support programs that they believe benefit blacks.

    That is compounded by the country’s rapidly changing demographics, Dr. Geiger said, in which minorities will eventually become a majority, a pattern that has produced a profound cultural unease, particularly when it has collided with economic insecurity.

    Dr. Shirley said: “If you look at the history of Mississippi, politicians have used race to oppose minimum wage, Head Start, all these social programs. It’s a tactic that appeals to people who would rather suffer themselves than see a black person benefit.”

    Opponents of the expansion bristled at the suggestion that race had anything to do with their position. State Senator Giles Ward of Mississippi, a Republican, called the idea that race was a factor “preposterous,” and said that with the demographics of the South — large shares of poor people and, in particular, poor blacks — “you can argue pretty much any way you want.”


  2. Rachel Godsil says:

    Orin, I think you misread the point of my post. My argument was not that the imagery simply “reflects” the stereotype that poor people are Black. Rather, I was arguing that the imagery perpetuates that stereotype – as well as the stereotype that the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid serve people who are Black or Latino. Civil rights leaders – and the authors of the article – are correct that the exclusion disproportionately harms people of color. And, as I noted, poverty does as well. While Black people form the smallest overall group of people living in poverty – 10.9 million – the percentage of Black people who are poor is the highest (27%). But the post was intended to explain why even though race was not mentioned expressly in the state level debates about whether to expand Medicaid, it likely did play a role in state decision-making, precisely because of the stereotype of who is poor and who “Obamacare” and Medicaid are likely to help. Heather Bullock’s article explains this phenomena. In his new book, Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society, civil rights scholar john powell explains that when our conception of who is poor is racialized – and the poor are seen as “other”, we are more likely to cut basic human needs such as the provision of health care. (p. 244) This does not mean that we should be silent about harm to poor people who are Black and Latino – or that we should not be deeply concerned about the disproportionate harm of policies such as the refusal to expand Medicaid. Rather, it is important to dispel then stereotypes that such programs only help people of color – and that only people of color require government support.

    Atul Gawande’s piece in this week’s New Yorker introduces the reader to Paul Sullivan, a college educated man in his fifties living in Houston. When Mr. Sullivan’s formerly successful small business failed, he lost his health insurance and ended up homeless after he couldn’t pay his medical bills for treatment of a precancerous lesion. Why might Gawande have chosen this particular person to convey the need for the health-insurance coverage promised by the ACA? Perhaps because he recognizes that the New Yorker reader will be more likely to see him or herself in this story. The need for the ACA will include the self rather than only the “other.” It is not that Gawande likely assumes that New Yorker readers won’t care about the Black and Latino families who find themselves in similarly dire circumstances. But the story of Paul Sullivan begins to challenge the stereotypes of who can become poor and who both needs and will benefit from the ACA.

  3. Orin Kerr says:

    Thanks for the explanation, Rachel. If your argument is that the civil rights leaders trying to help African-Americans are actually harming them by perpetuating stereotypes, that’s a very interesting perspective.

  4. Brett Bellmore says:

    “Civil rights leaders – and the authors of the article – are correct that the exclusion disproportionately harms people of color. And, as I noted, poverty does as well.”

    As I’ve noted elsewhere, grocery stores charging the uniform prices to all customers disproportionately effects blacks, but we don’t accuse Safeway of being a racist institution just because they don’t adjust your price down if you’re black. So long as ‘people of (certain) color(s)’ tend to be poorer than others, all sorts of racially neutral policies will have disparate effects.

    I think at some point it becomes tendentious to assign the effects of poverty to race. Double counting, as it were.

  5. Paul Horwitz says:

    May I note a potential ambiguity in Mr. Bellmore’s statement, between his discussion of being “racist” in the second paragraph and the question of assigning the effects of poverty to “race” in the third. In Alabama, where I live, there are many respects, from my perspective, in which race and poverty are intertwined here in a structural and historical sense. Among other effects, this makes it more difficult on the whole to see or encourage the growth of a black middle or upper-middle or managerial/professional class, with whatever attendant benefits that might hold for both those families and others. Despite the usual assumptions from outside the region, there are ways in which it might be tendentious today to attribute some of those continuing structures to simple racism (although that is hardly dead and gone here either). What I think of as damaging residential and educational structures and resources, for instance, often involve class-based rather than directly race-based sentiment on the part of those who would preserve or entrench them, although again they sometimes end up encouraging or perpetuating race-based ideas or prejudices on the part of those who live in those neighborhoods. Still, simple racism is not the answer to every question about what ails Alabama.

    But saying that it is now sometimes tendentious to assign the effects of poverty to racism in Alabama is different from assigning the effects of poverty to race–a claim that is still much less tendentious because there is still, in my view, a good deal of truth to it.

  6. Brett Bellmore says:

    I think one can make an argument for at least partially assigning the extent of black poverty to racism. (Though thinking that’s the whole reason for it is foolish.) What I have trouble with is this idea of declaring policies which impact the poor without regard to their race as somehow “racist”, just because blacks tend to be poorer than whites. That’s what I’m calling “double counting”.

    A law which treats similarly situated people the same regardless of their race is not rendered a racially discriminatory policy just because the races are not, on average, similarly situated. Or else Safeway is racist for charging the same price to all customers, and that’s flatly absurd.