The Culture of Poverty Rhetoric

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.”

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The Great Migration and the Black Middle Class

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a book recommendation. It is Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth Of Other Suns, “a narrative history of the Great Migration through the eyes of actual migrants.” (It was one of the NYTBR’s best books of the year in 2011.) A key takeaway, he says, is that America does not want a black middle class. “On a policy level, there is a persistent strain wherein efforts to aid The People are engineered in such a way wherein they help black people a lot less … At this point, such efforts no longer require open bigotry. They are simply built into the system.”

“Get the book,” he writes. “Read it now. Today is too late.” Here it is at Amazon. And at Powell’s. And at Goodreads.