Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Primer For Politicians: The Facts About Poverty & Race

Photo Credit: tizzie
"Stereotype: A fixed, commonly held notion or image of a person or group, based on an oversimplification of some observed or imagined trait of behavior or appearance." (From Media Awareness Network)

Those of us in the U.S. are in the midst of another presidential election and the issue of race is figuring prominently into the national conversation once again. When discussing the issue of race, there are a number of misconceptions that politicians often contribute to by reinforcing stereotypes that are based in perception...but not reality.

For example, take recent comments made by Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. When commenting about the state of the welfare system in the United States, Santorum is quoted as saying this:
"I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money."
Newt Gingrich, when commenting on the realities of poverty in America's inner cities, says this:
"Look,” Gingrich said, “at a time when you have up to 43% black teenage unemployment, you have entire communities that are devastated, you have neighborhoods where nobody has worked and nobody has any habit of work, I’d be delighted to — that’s why I want to challenge Obama to 7 three hour debates — I’d be delighted to have a conversation about our current approach to children. 
“Young children who are poor ought to learn how to go to work,” he continued. “What I’ve said is, for example, it would be great if inner city schools and poor neighborhood schools actually hired the children to do things. Some of the things they could do is work in the library, work in the front office. Some of them frankly, could be janitorial."
It can be agreed that poverty is a problem that needs tangible and long-term solutions. But one of the misconceptions that politicians like those quoted above have, along with many of us, is that poverty is a black issue. For many people, when the topic of conversation turns to poor people or the subject of welfare, there is a stereotype in many peoples' minds that poor=black. It is simply not true.

Here are the facts: According to The, the numbers from the 2010 census tell us that 31 million of the 46 million people living in poverty are white. Although the stereotype that many of us may assume to be true is that the bulk of those who are living in poverty are black, just a little over two out of every ten Americans living in poverty are African American. And poor white people don't just live in rural areas -- nearly half of the urban poor are those that look like me.

Furthermore, many people of all races who fall below the poverty line are employed or actively seeking work in this troubled economy. These individuals, considered the "working poor", comprise nearly 60% of all those who are considered poor. So any person who says that everyone who grows up below the poverty line doesn't know what an honest day's work looks like simply does not know the realities on this matter. In fact, some of those who we define as poor are some of the hardest working people that any of us will ever meet.

My concerns here in raising this issue are not that there are politicians who desire to see those in poverty elevate themselves into a higher economic class. Nor do my hesitations come from a place of not wanting economically disadvantaged individuals to earn a living for themselves. I think it is good and right that those in poverty seek employment, if at all possible. My trouble is with the condescending tone that accompanies these pronouncements, as well as the perpetuation of the stereotype that poor=black.

From personal experience, I know that this myth that all (or at least most) black people come from poverty or grew up in the inner-city is well-ingrained in the psyche of many of us. For example, I've spent much of my adult life ministering to African American college students. Although some of the students I've worked with have come from less than ideal family situations and grew up in economically distressed neighborhoods, many of them grew up in stable, two-parent homes in nice communities.

But time and time again I've had people assume that my ministry focus is in "the hood" after they've learned I work with African Americans. I say I minister to African American college students...and their mind immediately shifts to an "urban community" with "disadvantaged youth." Yes, I've spent some time ministering in poor communities in urban areas but most of my work with students has been spent on college campuses in college towns.

My desire is that the leaders at the highest level of our country would at least know the facts when it comes to addressing complicated challenges like systemic poverty in distressed communities across our country. People from all ethnic groups face economic challenges. It is not just a black problem. It is an issue for all of us. If political leaders are sincere in wanting to solve problems like cyclical poverty, my suggestions is that they spend some time in disadvantaged communities -- whether that's in the barrios of Los Angeles, the streets of Harlem or the hills of Appalachia.


Anonymous said...

GREAT post, Scott! Thanks so much. I wish it was required reading for all the presidential candidates!

Unknown said...

OMG Scott. I am sooo glad somebody else has been catching on to these comments that have been made. It has been driving me insane! I mean seriously, I live in black suburbia in Dallas. My neighborhood is majority if not all black and most of the homes are 2 story with 5 bdrm...does that sound like someone from poverty to you? Did I mention that there aren't any foreclosure signs out and hasn't been since the economy crashed. I know you can find this in many other cities in the U.S. as well (Atlanta being one).

Either way I am upset with the Republican party. I usually try to stay neutral but the comments on welfare and poor have drove me mad. How dare they speak on a stereotype as if it is true. Ignorance is all over the T.V. and no one says a word. Okay enough with my rant..I just hate that the front runners for this GOP primary are the ones saying all this. This means they are speaking to a people that potentially agree with their statements or think like they do and thats scary if thats half of my fellow Americans.

scottmcrocker said...

Glad to be able to give a forum for your rant, Tyshan. :)

Unknown said...

lol..sorry for the rant...its not good for me to have pent up