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.
A woman and her daughter count out food stamps in September in New York City. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

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.   

And those of us who’ve now reached the middle class with the help of government benefits should also speak up. As a colleague recently said to me, finding white people willing to acknowledge that they received help from the government is like finding a unicorn. Many of us who have needed help received it, but once we no longer need help, it seems pretty easy to conveniently forget.

I’m white and now living a middle-class life, and I’m pretty sure my picture doesn’t come to mind when newspapers write about the “urban poor” on government assistance or benefiting from affirmative action.

But when I was a kid in the 1970s, I fit into all three of those categories. I lived in Milwaukee—not a wealthy suburb—so I was urban and, at times, poor. For years, I had medical care thanks to Title 19, a government program for low-income families. I have vivid and unpleasant memories of drinking powdered milk (if you’ve never tasted it, just think watery chalk). We rented out a room in our home to help pay the rent. We hitchhiked when our really old and unheated VW Bug wasn’t working. And when I was in middle school, my mother worked as a sheet-metal worker, thanks to an affirmative action program to get more women into the industry. I don’t know much about her actual job, just that she wore overalls and seemed to cut her fingers a lot. 

Like anyone’s story, the details of mine are unique, but they aren’t rare. And I realize that our collective—and selective—memory can have a cost. When we benefit from government help but later don’t acknowledge it, we are contributing to the effort to portray government programs as paid for by white people but not for us. And we are hastening their demise. We are and always have been part of these categories, so it’s time we come out of the shadows and into the pictures.

Rachel D. Godsil is the Eleanor Bontecou Professor of Law at Seton Hall University.