Race, Ethnicity & Poverty
This article presents an overview of the relationship between race, ethnicity, and poverty. Although the number of white Americans living in poverty is twice as high as the number for either African Americans or Hispanics, the poverty rate (the proportion of an ethnic group living below the poverty line) is about three times as high among the latter two groups. Although the overall poverty rate fell from about 22 to 12 percent of the population in the 1960s and has remained relatively stable, some pockets of extreme poverty have actually expanded. Explanations of the issue of poverty tend to emphasize either cultural or structural factors. The more prominent trend among scholars over the past few decades, however, appears to have been to discount cultural factors — the social and psychological effects of poverty — and emphasize structural factors alone. Cultural arguments, however, have been given more scholarly treatment more recently. The central point of many of these studies, particularly those of prominent African American sociologist and public-policy advisor William Julius Wilson, is that the social, cultural, and structural effects of poverty generally result in continued poverty. In other words, both cultural and structural factors tend to render poverty a self-perpetuating condition.
Keywords Accumulation Model; Brown v. Board of Education; Concentration Effects; Consumption Model; Culture of Poverty; Extreme Poverty; Moynihan Report; Oppositional Culture; Poverty Line/Poverty Threshold; Social Isolation; Underclass; Wilson, William Julius
Explanations of the issue of poverty tend to emphasize either cultural or structural factors. Cultural factors might include the low aspirations and the prominence of an oppositional culture among minority adolescents living below the poverty line, lack of access to positive role models, and the influence of peers who may discourage academic performance and encourage criminal conduct. Structural factors include income, the loss of relatively well-paying manufacturing jobs in inner-city neighborhoods, overt discrimination against minorities, and demographic changes. An extreme version of the "Culture of Poverty" hypothesis asserts that the behavioral patterns associated with poverty, particularly the inability to make long-term plans or sacrifices, will remain even if material poverty is alleviated.
The consumption model of family organization is characterized by more individualistic, autonomous, and income-dependent (or high-cost) behavior. This model is considered the cultural norm for American families. The accumulation model is characterized by delayed or permanently suspended gratification (or self-sacrifice), pooling resources, and the use of family residences as a means of promoting housing and employment efficiency. The consumption model is generally applied to naturalized immigrants or citizens with full social and legal rights, whereas the accumulation model tends to function in a way that compensates for those limitations and limited employment prospects. Both the beneficial and detrimental elements of the consumption model are evident among the US-born African American community, whereas black-skinned immigrants from West Africa and the Caribbean tend to fit into the accumulation model. In short, African American families appear to experience more social instability as the result of economic instability than other families, particularly immigrant families. Contrasting economic data about African Americans and Hispanics seems to reveal that Hispanics also exhibit advantages as measured by structural (or economic) factors (Marcus, 2005).
The Moynihan Report
The 1965 Moynihan Report, an internal federal government study titled, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," has often been interpreted as the government-endorsed equivalent of the culture of poverty hypothesis. Although the report places a heavy emphasis on cultural factors, particularly those related to the social instability of African American families, it also illustrates the self-perpetuating nature of poverty.
The Moynihan Report also contrasts the mutually detrimental cultural and structural effects of family instability within the African American community with the relative social and economic stability of immigrant households. This distinction is probably ill-conceived in cultural terms, but it also points to the ways in which cultural factors can be as relevant as structural factors in understanding poverty. This trend, however, is likely complicated by the statistical information that poverty levels are equally as high for Hispanics (at 26.3 percent of the population) as African Americans (at 25.8 percent) (US Census Bureau, 2013, p. 2); yet Hispanics appear to exhibit beneficial cultural traits, particularly the "mutual aid" or accumulation model of marriage and family organization.
The Moynihan Report was written by US senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in support of the Lyndon Johnson administration's War on Poverty and largely summarized the existing research of African American social scientists (particularly E. Franklin Frazier), but it was also written for government administrators and, as such, used blunt language. It was leaked to the press at a time when the civil rights movement was devoted to concepts such as black pride and black power and when social workers tended to avoid discussions of the cultural elements of poverty or take a highly relativistic stance on the issue. Opponents of welfare entitlements and some conservatives, however, supported a culture of poverty-type argument and found confirmation of those cultural arguments in the Moynihan Report (Curran, 2003).
Martin Luther King Jr. and a few other prominent African American leaders endorsed the Moynihan report, but the controversy it initiated rendered culture-related discussions about poverty generally off-limits for at least a decade. Moynihan traced the contemporary crises in African American households back to the Great Migration when significant numbers of blacks living in the South moved north in pursuit of industrial jobs and to the lingering effects of slavery on domestic stability. He used the term pathology to describe the apparent inability of African American households to socialize children, but also — mildly, in this instance — ascribed the term disorganized to African American families (Gewertz, 2007). Unfortunately, Moynihan's warnings about family instability among African American households and the lack of employment prospects for young African American men are, in retrospect, understated (Marcus, 2005).
William Julius Wilson identified several cultural trends under the theory he termed the "Concentration Effects" of poverty. This theory tends to move away from the issue of race and toward class-related issues.
Wilson's Concentration Effects Theory refers specifically to patterns of high-density poverty in metropolitan areas, particularly in public housing developments. In the 1950s, about 65 percent of the population in those neighborhoods was employed. In the 1990s, that figure fell to between 25 and 40 percent. Increased welfare rolls, out-of-wedlock births, and family dissolution tended to exacerbate dislocation from the labor force. Wilson (2003) argues that unemployment has worse effects than poverty in the sense that unemployment results in family dissolution and crime. Unemployment also appears to diminish other important practices, such the ability to organize time, goals, and planning abilities (Wilson, 2003).
Wilson's related idea of social isolation refers to the lack of access to jobs and "mainstream social networks" that would aid social and economic mobility. He also argued that the absence of strong role models results in both structural deprivations, such as access to the labor force, and "social-psychological" deprivations, which Wilson terms "limited aspirations" and "negative social dispositions" (Wilson, 2003). This trend is sometimes discussed in terms of an oppositional culture; another slight variation is termed an "atypical worldview."
The Moynihan Report predicted an increasing "discouragement" factor over poor employment prospects and that an oppositional culture would become more prominent. In other words, exposure to poor-quality schools and the perceived lack of legitimate opportunity would result in poverty-reinforcing effects in the form of self-defeating behavior. According to a gender-based cultural model used by economists, males of any ethnic background are likely to pursue illegal income when very low-paying jobs are the only option. By the 1960s, African American males had become accustomed to earning more than service-sector or agricultural-level income. In other words, their "reservation wage" (the minimum amount of pay an individual is willing to work for) had increased (Curley, 2005; Holzer, 2007).
Wilson (2003) claims that both white and African American employers view inner-city African Americans as undesirable employees. Overt discrimination, however, need not be evident in the sense that stereotypes might prove to be self-reinforcing: Employees who believe they are judged by unrealistically high standards of reliability or punctuality due to perceived racism might assume they cannot meet expectations and therefore cease attempting to do so (Bane, 2005). Another way to frame this issue is that young inner-city employees suffer both race and class subordination simultaneously (Greenstein, 1987).
All ethnic groups, however, withdrew from the labor market in the 1980s as manufacturing jobs disappeared at fairly high levels. The "double" social and economic effect is also evident in this issue in the sense that employers often use current employees to find new applicants. In other words, labor-force withdrawal results in losses of both social and economic resources (Holzer, 2007).
The "new urban poverty," sometimes referred to by the term "underclass," seems to reflect that the majority of youths in inner-city area have not attempted to enter the workforce or have attempted and failed to do so. Although Wilson is sometimes perceived as a critic of affirmative action, his real point is that the polarization of the labor market into higher and lower-paying jobs resulted in a more severe case of income stratification in the African American population than in the general population (Wilson, 2003).
In 2012, African Americans comprised approximately 13 percent of the population, and Hispanics comprised about 17 percent, and yet the poverty rate among these two groups is almost three times as high as that of the white population: In 2012, approximately 9.7 percent of whites lived in poverty. The African American population living in poverty was 27.1 percent, and Hispanics living in poverty comprised 25.6 percent of the population US Census Bureau, 2012).
Statistics from a 2005 United Nations Economic and Social Council report on extreme poverty (those who earn half the amount designated as the poverty line at that time, or about $5,000 annually for an individual) indicate that the US national rate for individuals living in extreme poverty in 2005 was 5.4 percent. The rate among Hispanics was 7.9 percent, and for African Americans it was 11.4 percent. About 20 percent of both Hispanics and African Americans either lived in substandard housing or spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing(Sengupta, 2007). After the recession of 2000-2001, African Americans continued to experience hardship in relation to both housing and food, whereas Hispanics as a group only struggled to acquire food (Finegold & Wherry, 2004). The accumulation model of family organization among Hispanic households likely informed this circumstance, particularly in terms of economizing housing expenses.
According to 2004 US Census Bureau statistics, Hispanic households earned an average of 71 percent (or about $36,000) of the national median income (which was about $50,800); African American households earned 61 percent (about $30,500) of the median income; and Asian households earned over $61,000 on average. Households comprised of foreign-born families earned about $42,000, and naturalized households earned about $50,000, very close to the national median (Sengupta, 2007). The poverty disparity between whites and non-whites had declined by that year, and yet hardship disparity — regarding housing and food — appeared to have increased. This trend was likely the result of non-minorities falling from a higher standard of living rather than low-earning minorities earning substantially more (Pear, 2002; Finegold & Wherry, 2004).
The number of people living in extreme poverty in 2001 increased from 12.6 million to 13.4 million after the recession of...
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