What About Poor White Kids?

Our insistence on equating "poor" with "black" has undermined the success of anti-poverty programs.

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Recent discussions of poverty have revealed themselves to be, in fact, coded conversations about race. When Newt Gingrich talks about poor kids having no work ethic and Donald Trump agrees, they discuss poor kids interchangeably with black or inner-city youths. For years politicians, policy wonks and others have used "disadvantaged," "underprivileged," "inner-city," "urban" and "poor" as code words for black and brown people.

This is not just a polite effort to avoid explicit mentions of race; it is an attempt to link African Americans to these characteristics, constructing a pathological view of black America. Poverty is, according to this view, a problem confined to the black community, the result of cultural pathologies. This view reached its ultimate expression last week with Gene Marks' much refuted "advice column" for poor black kids that was published in Forbes.

This kind of coding has become so prevalent, even black commentators have fallen victim to it. When the Jerry Sandusky case emerged, charges that the former Penn State coach sexually assaulted the young men who were part of his Second Mile charity immediately raised questions for some about the racial identity of those victims. Descriptions of his victims as "underprivileged" or "disadvantaged youth" -- the same code words so often used for African Americans -- had some black commentators wondering if his victims were black.

As it turns out, Sandusky "tended to choose white boys from homes where there was no father or some difficulty in the family." Somehow, those white kids were not the first who came to many minds when terms such as "poor" and "single-parent household" were used.

Our national conversations about poverty -- so entangled with race in unspoken ways -- have rendered the white poor invisible and the black poor pathological, and undermined our attempts to gain majority support for anti-poverty programs. Led to believe that the poor are "other people's problems," a significant portion of Americans have come to view social welfare programs designed to assist the poor as attempts at wealth redistribution -- not just across class lines but across the unspoken, coded racial lines.

If white America would come face-to-face with white poverty, it would realize that these anti-poverty programs are needed in their communities, too. And we would move beyond a view of poverty as the pathology of a specific racial or ethnic group. Would white people casually accept Newt Gingrich telling them that their children have no work ethic and need to start cleaning school bathrooms?

One of my favorite texts to assign my American-history class is Michael Patrick MacDonald's All Souls, a memoir about growing up in the racially segregated neighborhood of South Boston. In the 1970s, South Boston was the site of one of the most violent oppositions to school integration when its predominantly white Irish neighborhood rejected the legally mandated desegregation of South Boston High.

What MacDonald's memoir also tells us, though, is that South Boston had one of the nation's highest concentrations of white poverty and was marred by crime, suicide, drug-use and violence rates that the residents of South Boston themselves refused to own up to, convinced that those were problems exclusively of black ghettos.

When reading the text, my students often register surprise that those kinds of communities exist -- that were it not for race, the residents of South Boston would find much in common with their neighbors in predominantly black Roxbury. The students begin to understand poverty as a function not of race but of class.

In this white-majority country, it is imperative that white America sees poverty as its problem, too. Increasing the visibility of the white poor helps disrupt the racialized narrative we have of poverty, laying the groundwork for the strategic alliances we need to address it as a nation.

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