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.