A new CDC study exploring the link between AIDS and poverty is proving to be controversial for its suggestion that income is more important than race when determining a person’s chance of infection.

In a press briefing this afternoon, Kevin Fenton, Director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS; Jonathan Mermin, Director of the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention; and Paul Denning, the study’s lead author, spoke about the basics of their findings, yielded by researching 9,000 heterosexual adults in 23 major American cities:

The analysis also shows that poverty is the single most important demographic factor associated with HIV infection among inner-city heterosexuals.  Contrary to severe racial disparities that characterize the overall U.S. epidemic, researchers found no differences in HIV prevalence by race/ethnicity in this population.


Within the low income urban areas included in the study, individuals living below the poverty line were at  greater risk for HIV than those living above it (2.4 percent prevalence vs. 1.2 percent), though prevalence for both groups was far higher than the national average (0.45 percent).  There were no significant differences in HIV prevalence by race or ethnicity in these low income urban areas: prevalence was 2.1 percent among blacks, 2.1 percent among Hispanics, and 1.7 percent among whites.  By contrast, the U.S. epidemic overall is characterized by severe racial/ethnic disparities: the HIV prevalence rate for blacks is almost 8 times that of whites, and the HIV prevalence rate among Hispanics is nearly 3 times that of whites.

One might think the study’s point—that race, once again, is a negligible factor when considering the nation’s social woes—would have civil rights activists excited. Instead, many are upset, worried that the CDC’s findings will undermine the dialogue they’ve established around AIDS and race. Phill Wilson, founder of the Black AIDS Institute, released this statement earlier today:

So, the question is: Is race or poverty the driver of HIV in Black communities? We believe this is essentially a difference without a distinction. In America, Black people are disproportionately poor. Almost 25 percent of Blacks live in poverty, compared to 9 percent of Whites. … As a result even when you think you are looking at HIV/AIDS through the lens of economics, you are still looking at the disease through the lens of race. A rose is a rose, as they say.


The CDC plans to unveil their research at the International AIDS Conference in Vienna this week.

-Cord Jefferson is a staff writer for The Root. Follow him on Twitter.