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.