Poverty in Racial Terms

In my previous blog post, I made note of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “Benign Neglect” memo to President Nixon. Although I appraised the work for assessing poverty through both a quantitative and qualitative lens, Moynihan still fails to accurately depict the living conditions and supposed, “progress” of the African American community. I believe that this shortcoming was, in part, a result of Moynihan’s inability to make connections between the racial identities of the individuals he studied and their economic statuses. To a certain extent, Moynihan views the relationship between poverty and the African American community as coincidental rather than as a trend that is motivated by an underlying sociological force such as institutionalized oppression. In order to avoid Moynihan’s blunder and develop a more truthful depiction of how poverty emerges and is perpetuated in contemporary society, individuals should measure and describe poverty in both economic and racial terms.

One characteristic of Moynihan’s analysis that may have led him to neither see nor note the distinct presence of poverty plaguing the African American community is the absolute, not relative, lens he used to assess poverty. Absolute poverty is defined as the state of being unable to subsist, whereas relative poverty is the inability to attain the minimum respectable standard of living in a particular society. If Moynihan implemented a more relative assessment and compared the levels of poverty of whites to those of African Americans, he would have surely been able to note the apparent disparity in wealth between the two groups. For example, in 1963, average white family wealth surpassed that of African American families by $117,000 (in 2013 dollars). Although the wealth of the country as a whole has increased since that time, the disparity is aggregating as well. In 2013, white families amassed an average wealth $500,000 more than that of both African American and Latino families. In observing cases such as this and noting that white families are the majority racial group in the U.S., one can assuredly claim that African American families are impoverished relative to the standard of wealth in the U.S., both during the 1960’s and today.

Race should be considered a factor in economic studies because social, cultural, and historical contexts intertwine to impact the financial status of certain identity groups. Take for instance, the long-term and multi-generation effect of racism on current African American communities. It is impossible to completely separate the racial factors from economic or political factors when assessing poverty. When discussing racial factors, the focus should be placed on institutionalized racism rather than on personal, race-based prejudice. Political scientist Michael Harrington explains this claim more succinctly when he claims that “racism is too easy an explanation” for the issue of poverty, because it frames the economic and social hardships of African Americans as a result of the racially prejudiced mindsets of some white Americans rather than as a result of an “occupational hierarchy rooted in history and institutionalized in the labor market.”

In the book American Apartheid, Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton provide an example of how interconnected racial, political, and economic factors are in the creation of poverty. Massey and Denton explain that the perpetuation of the African American underclass in inner cities in the 1960’s was an immediate result of the clustering of wealth in certain geographical areas of America. One must note, however, that this shift in the economic disposition of the country resulted from racism against African Americans, specifically from both segregation (de jure and de facto) and discriminatory practices in employment. These legal hardships evolved into a political dilemma when these geographical divides excuse white politicians from passing legislation that would aid the socially isolated African American communities in urban areas. After coming to terms with the multifaceted design of poverty, a more expansive definition of poverty can be introduced. Poverty can be described as the state in which one’s financial status, along with social and political status, impinge upon one’s freedom to live well and independently. It is evident that the clustering of wealthy, white men in areas throughout the United States is a detriment to African Americans because this social isolation from more privileged individuals ultimately leads to a behavioral reaction in which aberrant behavior (e.g.: excessive drug use, gang violence, etc.) is exhibited, and even esteemed, by those in the inner-city underclass.

If government officials can agree that race should be incorporated into the study of poverty, how should they incorporate in into public policy that is designed to ameliorate poverty afflicting the underclass? What are the benefits and disadvantages associated with public policies that target specific marginalized communities rather than universal groups? It is apparent that race-based policies alone cannot abolish poverty in the United States, as there are many impoverished individuals who are white. Furthermore, considering that some of these public policies are grounded in the idea of anti-discrimination, would it be just to enact policies that would aid wealthy and educated blacks, a minority group that is not in need of government financial assistance, and not poor whites? I will begin to answer these questions in my next blog post as I discuss the material I am currently reading in Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action Was White and William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged.

Poverty in Racial Terms

2 thoughts on “Poverty in Racial Terms

  1. Nicole, now you are getting to the heart of the issue. Sociologists have been baffled for 50 years about the high correlation between specific racial groups and poverty. Part of the reason the issue has not been more widely studied is political and part is institutionalized racism, as you point out. One of the most severe blows to quest to understand poverty and race was dealt by a controversial book written in 1994 by Herrnstein & Murray called The Bell Curve. The research strongly suggested that the intelligence of African Americans was inferior to that of whites. It took years to discredit and undo the conclusions the two authors presented to the public. In contrast, the most devastating blow to those who deny institutional racism was The Atlantic June 2014 essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates called The Case for Reparations. If you haven’t read it, you will want to.

    Your post is excellent. Keep digging because most sociologists who want to remain in the profession are afraid to dig.


    1. Hi Mr. Backon, thank you for taking a look at this recent blog post! I actually read Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” last year and it definitely provided me with a more insightful look on how institutionalized racism contributes to the perpetuation of poverty. Although I do not recall the article in its entirety, this whole concept of the government providing reparations to those who they have dealt past maltreatment certainly interests me. However, if the U.S. federal government were to establish programs that would grant reparations to those who have been exploited by racial oppression, it remains unclear to me what the criteria for the recipients of these remunerations would look like. Would being simply black qualify as meeting the guidelines, or would one have to be more specifically African-American?

      In the book The Ethnic Myth, Stephen Steinberg makes a distinction between African-Americans and blacks who are not descendants of those who were enslaved in the U.S. (e.g.: Afro-Caribbeans and Africans), the latter group which he refers to as ethnic heroes. With the introduction of these ethnic heroes, the argument petitioning for reparations is consequently challenged. African-Americans can at times be perceived as lazy and self-victimizing compared to some of these non-African American blacks who immigrate to the United States, take the grueling jobs that many African-Americans (who are impatient due to the years of exploitation with slavery and segregation) would not take and sometimes go on to rise out of poverty and become successful within just a single or a few generations. The story of the ethnic hero supports this “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality and leads some individuals to assume that African-Americans would not need government-sanctioned reparations if they were to work hard enough.

      On a different note, another issue that arises in making a case for reparations is the question concerning the fate of poor whites in this situation. If the government is promising to help those victims of racism escape from poverty, does it also have the moral obligation to aid whites who have enter poverty under different circumstances that are not entirely their fault? Also, if the government were to endorse new programs that would provide reparations to blacks and other marginalized groups, how long would these programs run for? The issue is that upon implementing such programing, one needs to define the standards for which one can assess the status of a group and deem that they have “officially” risen out of poverty and have been compensated for. But what metrics would be used to make such as assessment and how can one be truly ensure accuracy? Just take the opinion of former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on race based-affirmative action policies, for example. In her opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, O’Connor wrote: “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest [in student body diversity] approved today.” Well, she made that statement in 2003, and I think today, 12 years later, she may admit that our nation hasn’t progressed on the issue of equal access to higher education as much as she had expected it to. These are just the thoughts and questions I had concerning reparative welfare and affirmative action programs after you reminded me of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ thought-provoking article. Hopefully, with more reading I’ll be able to come up with possible answers for the questions I’ve proposed.


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