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.
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.
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.