Addressing the Elephant in the Room: The Role of Racism in Poverty


Date published: Mon, 4 June 18

By Syeda R. Noshin

Science has long since identified melanin as the source of differences in skin, hair, and eye color between people, confirming that it has no relation to intellect, capability, or anything inherent about a person’s personality (1). And yet, society still refuses to relinquish its white-knuckled grip on the idea that assumptions can be made about a person’s disposition and abilities based upon their physical appearance. Racism has been interwoven into the fabric of many issues in the United States, poverty being a well-established example. The official poverty rate in 2016 obtained from the Census Bureau was 12.7% of our population, about 41 million people (2). When evaluating the demographics that make up this number, it was found that while 9% of all Caucasian people are among those in poverty, 22% of African Americans live in poverty (3). Other ethnic groups also have higher poverty levels than those who are white, such as 20% of Hispanics and 13% of other demographic groups, but the biggest disparity is towards black men and women.

In addition to the sheer numbers, practices such as property value adjustments based on minority presence (4) and purposefully raising prices for the same items in stores as well as home values in different areas have progressively created distinct “rich” and “poor” neighborhoods (5). Enabling this separation, gentrification practices have become more and more common. In a study conducted to note how poverty has evolved over the years amidst these conditions, of those in poverty in 2009, 62% of African Americans and 65% of Hispanic Americans remained at this level in 2013, while 58% of Caucasians remained (6). When studying black children born into families in poverty, it was found that only 2.5% of them make it into the top fifth of household incomes (7). Only 3.3% of American Indian children and 7.1% of Hispanic children were also noted to grow up to leave poverty behind. However, it was also noted that black children from well-off families were much more likely to become poor as adults than it was for white children. The numbers are pretty daunting, so why is it that the majority of those in poverty can’t seem to get themselves out of it, and why are people becoming poor from affluent families?

In a comprehensive study of the black-white gap, it was noted that black families who moved to areas with low racial bias and low poverty rates produced children who grew up with higher incomes and lower incarceration rates. This indicates the extent to which racism impacts income and poverty, showing that, while minimum wage increases and welfare and other such benefits help to maintain basic living for those in poverty, initiatives that impact across neighborhoods and class lines have a more lasting impact on lifting people out of their poverty (8). Such initiatives include mentoring programs for black boys, highlighting the importance of acknowledging and reducing racial bias among white people, efforts to account for the current discrimination present in the criminal justice system, and facilitating dialogue between diverse audiences. While it is important to address poverty from a monetary standpoint, providing aid such that these individuals can maintain a basic standard of living, this is a temporary solution that must be paired with addressing the intersectionality between this issue and racial biases. Segregation was officially determined unconstitutional in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but the idea is still alive and well today in the midst of separated poor and rich neighborhoods, schools, and communities. Poverty has remained stagnant in this country throughout the years, and the first step towards really eliminating it begins with addressing racism and segregation and building more nurturing communities for our future.


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