Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Real Face of Poverty

I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. Bushwick to be exact, on a tree-lined street in a 3 story brick house. I guess it was kind of, sort of a middle class neighborhood. The majority of the people on my block owned their own homes, and had good jobs. Although the neighborhood had its criminal element. It was safe. 

Everybody who lived in Bushwick was either Black or Puerto Rican. The only white people that I ever saw in person were either Police or teachers. The only other representation of white America that I saw was on television shows like the Brady Bunch or The Partridge Family. Both families had a father who was a professional, a ton of children, big, a beautiful house, and they didn't have a care in the world. Other than the dog hiding a doll or whatever trivial concern, mishap, or corny plot twist that was written into the script that week. To me and many of my peers this was what life was like for all white people. On the other end of the spectrum there was "Good Times", a show about a poverty stricken African-American family from Chicago who managed laugh through their pain. No matter how hard they tried they could not make it out of the projects despite having a hard working father. Many of us rooted for them to succeed as we thanked God that it wasn't us. But they never did.

 America was given a "birds eye" view of one aspect of Black life in this country and for many it was representative of the greater collective. Namely all of Black America. 

In the years since the media stereo types have persisted, and has had a powerful influence on everything from politics, to perception.

Anyone who has ever read a news paper, or watched the news knows that Blacks, Latinos, and other minorities have long been the face of poverty in America. But is this an accurately reflect reality.

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.

I REPEAT: A majority of those benefiting from programs like food stamps and Medicaid are white.

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 Timespublished 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 andLatinos 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. 

 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.   


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