Hey, Media: White People Are Poor, Too

Despite routine portrayals of poor people as black and Latino, most poor people in America are actually white.

A woman and her daughter count out food stamps in September in New York City.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Fact: Most poor people in the United States are white.

According to Census figures in 2013, 18.9 million whites are poor. That’s 8 million more poor white people than poor black people, and more than 5 million more than those who identify as Latino. A majority of those benefiting from programs like food stamps and Medicaid are white, too.

But somehow our picture of poverty is different, and the media tends to tell us a different story. A recent New York Times story, “Cut in Food Stamps Forces Hard Choices on Poor,” included only pictures of African Americans and Latinos from the Bronx, N.Y., and a number of Southern states. In October, the Times published another story about the impact of states’ rejection of the Medicaid expansion that’s part of the Affordable Care Act.

The images accompanying that story were also all of black or Latino families. Was that because only blacks and Latinos receive Medicaid? No.


Wisconsin activists want their state to accept the Obamacare Medicaid expansion.


So, why didn’t the Times include a picture like this one?

They’re all white, they’re organizing to raise poverty wages in Wisconsin and they’re all in need of Medicaid.

The Times and others like them are likely responding to the reality that blacks and Latinos are disproportionately poor—27 percent of African Americans and 25 percent of Latinos are poor, compared to just 9 percent of whites—and are disproportionately harmed by cuts to food stamps or limits to Medicaid. 

And I agree with the authors of these reports that we ought to be troubled by disproportionate harm to groups we know have been discriminated against. Yet, inadvertently, the traditional media’s one-sided image of poverty has contributed to the misconception that most poor people are black and that most black people are poor—although more than 70 percent are not.

This stereotype, like most stereotypes, harms black people in myriad ways, especially because the political right has linked poverty with moral failure as a trope to undermine public support for government programs—remember Ronald Reagan’s welfare queen? These tactics didn’t end in the 1980s. Last week, for example, Fox News’ Brad Blakeman said the government was "like a drug dealer" peddling "dependency" to food-stamp recipients.

Social scientists and others have long made the observation that the media over-emphasizes people of color in coverage of poverty and government benefits. But if the message hasn’t yet reached even the New York Times, it clearly needs to be said again.