The image of deep poverty in the United States is unfairly and inaccurately racialized. For many people, it is hard to avoid associating words like poverty, ghetto, or poor with black and minority individuals and communities. For many, the default mental image for such terms is unavoidably non-white, and white poverty ends up taking on qualifiers to distinguish it as something separate from the default image for poverty. We use white-trash or something related to a trailer park to distinguish white poverty as something different than general poverty which is coded as black and minority.
This distinction, default, and mental image of poverty being a black and minority problem creates a lot of misconceptions about who is truly poor in America. In the book $2.00 A Day Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer write, “the phenomenon of $2-a-day poverty among households with children [has] been on the rise since the nation’s landmark welfare reform legislation was passed in 1996. … although the rate of growth [is] highest among African Americans and Hispanics, nearly half of the $2-a-day poor [are] white.” (Tense changed from past to present by blog author)
Poverty, in public discourse and public policy, is often presented as a racial problem because we do not recognize how many white people in the United States live in poverty. The quote above shows that the racialized elements of our general view of poverty do reflect real differences in changing rates of poverty among minority groups, but also reveals that almost half – nearly a majority – of people in poverty are white.
The consequence is that policy and public opinion often approaches poverty from a race based standpoint, and not from an economic and class based standpoint. Policy is not well designed when it doesn’t reflect the reality of the situation, and public discourse is misplaced when it fails to accurately address the problems society faces. Biases, prejudices, and discriminatory practices can be propped up and supported when we misunderstand the nature of reality, especially when it comes to extreme poverty. Additionally, by branding only minorities as poor and carving out a special space for white poverty, we reducing the scope and seriousness of the problem, insisting that it is a cultural problem of inferior and deficient groups, rather than a by-product of an economic system or a manifestation of shortcomings of economic and social models. It is important that we recognize that poverty is not something exclusive to black and minority groups.