In the last decade, concentrated poverty has gotten significantly worse. In some regions of the country, over a third of residents now live in what are called “poor neighborhoods.” A Slate writer took a look at the 2010 Census data:
In 2010, the overall U.S. poverty rate was about 15 percent. However, about a quarter of all Americans lived in a so-called “poverty area”—defined as a census tract where more than 20 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. … The problem was especially severe in Appalachia and across the South and Southwest, where in most states 30 percent or more of all residents lived in these communities.
As recently as a decade ago, the situation was much less dire: in 2000, around 18% of the total US population lived in “poor neighborhoods.” Now over 25% of us do. 15% of all Americans — and an unconscionable 21.8% of all children – live in poverty (“In 2012, 73.7 million American children represented 23.7% of the total U.S. population, but made up a disquieting 34.6% of Americans in poverty and a full 35% of Americans living in deep poverty”). Increasingly it seems Poverty is an actual place where Americans live, packed together in isolation, forced to cope with fewer resources, fewer services, fewer jobs, more violence, and the kind of high walls that make Poverty difficult to escape. Metaphorically speaking.
An unrelated article by several economists in Slate suggests that, on a local level, at least, people are acting: towns, even or especially less affluent ones, are doing like Denmark.
This is not news, but in case you needed more ammunition to shoot down the rags-to-riches dreams of the naïve up-and-comers you meet between the dive bar and the OTB, there’s a 30-year, longitudinal study of 800 Baltimore children that proves, as Mother Jones happily summarizes, that “family determines almost everything, and that a child’s fate is essentially fixed by how well off her parents were when she was born.”
And (surprise!) the data reveal additional barriers to upward mobility for black children:
Alexander found that among men who drop out of high school, the employment differences between white and black men was truly staggering. At age 22, 89 percent of the white subjects who’d dropped of high school were working, compared with 40 percent of the black dropouts.
These differences came despite the fact that it was the better-off white men who reported the highest rates of drug abuse and binge drinking. White men from disadvantaged families came in second in that department. White men also had high rates of encounters with the criminal justice system. At age 28, 41 percent of the white men born into low-income families had criminal convictions, compared with 49 percent of the black men from similar backgrounds, an indication that it is indeed race, not a criminal record, that’s keeping a lot of black men out of the workforce.
Now, I realize that for those among us who, through poor planning, were born poor and/or black, there’s not much to do but keep on struggling and hope to beat the odds. But I do sometimes wonder how long the American Dream will continue to edge out Armed Insurrection Followed By Workers’ Paradise as our favorite unrealistic formula for working class salvation.
Photo by the author
At The Week, Matt Bruenig looks at debate between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait, who have been discussing black culture and poverty, and how easy and wrong it is to conflate the two:
Our discourse around poverty, and particularly the so-called “culture of poverty,” often proceeds as if most poor people are black and most black people are poor. Neither is true. In 2012, 46.5 million people fell below the official poverty line. Within that 46.5 million, there were 1.9 million Asians, 10.9 million blacks, 13.6 million Latinos, and 18.9 million whites. Although black people have the highest poverty rate at 27.2 percent (barely above the Latino poverty rate of 25.6 percent), black poverty accounts for less than one-fourth of U.S. poverty.
Thus, most of what is said about black culture and black poverty fails to address three-fourths of the overall problem. What causes black poverty rates to be so elevated is an important discussion to have, but it is a much narrower one than most people seem to think. If black poverty rates were as low as white poverty rates, that would amount to seven million fewer people in the ranks of the impoverished. To reiterate: There are 46.5 million people currently below the official poverty line. Seven million people is a lot of people, but it is not the totality of the American poverty problem, not even close.
Bruenig also looks further back in our history when pundits also blamed poor whites for their “culture of poverty.” In a book published in 1979 called Dixie’s Forgotten People, Wayne Flint argued that “poor whites lacked ambition; they were violent, sexually promiscuous people who did not respect human life.” Bruenig sums it up like this: “anywhere you find poor people, you also find non-poor people theorizing their cultural inferiority and dysfunction.”