Though the story was later proven false, the concept became an American colloquialism, propagated by news media and Hollywood, and remains a disturbingly popular image of poor black women and families.
The truth? Of the 46 million people living in poverty in America in 2010, the U.S. census revealed that 31 million were white. Ten million were black. Of the 49 million people without health insurance coverage, 37 million were white; 8 million were African American. Latinos of every race and Asian Americans represented the remaining largest ethnic groups.
The face of poverty in America is overwhelmingly white, but as sociologist and professor William O’Hare explains in a 2009 study on children in poverty, the white American poor, especially those in rural areas, are “forgotten.”
So What Do the Numbers Tell Us About Poverty?
White Americans, poor and middle-class alike, receive the vast majority of tax-funded government assistance programs, from monthly assistance to Social Security to food stamps.
TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), the program that provides aid to single mothers, is the most well-known welfare program, but the truth is that Social Security and Medicare are also social welfare services, funded by tax dollars. To that end, nearly 70 percent of all benefits of these programs go to white people. In fact, since African Americans have lower life expectancy, many work and pay into the Social Security and Medicare programs through their tax dollars, only to have white Americans, who have a longer life expectancy, benefit from the income they’ve left behind.
O’Hare’s research in his 2009 report “The Forgotten Fifth: Child Poverty in Rural America,” reveals that 57 percent of rural poor children were white and 44 percent of all urban poor children were white. But theirs is a story rarely told, their faces hardly seen. High poverty rates for poor and working-class whites have worsened since the 2008 economic crisis. Rural white poverty was already more systemic than urban poverty. Poor whites are more likely to lack basic education levels and remain in poverty for generations.
O’Hare found that white Americans living in rural areas benefited the least from the economic boom of the 1990s. The parents were often underemployed, and this translated into deeper poverty levels for their children.
The Food Stamp Fallacy and GOP Strategy
In December 2009, the New York Times published a series of related articles showing that poor whites across Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta and through the Midwest, Deep South and Texas borderlands were the highest percentage of Americans relying on the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), or food stamp, program.