Poor White People: Where Are They?

Hi Meltingpot Readers,

So, the other day my older son made a comment along the lines of, ‘Well, all the poor neighborhoods are Black neighborhoods.” I can’t even recall the context in which he said this, because my heart stopped for a moment and I had a painful flashback to my own childhood.

Growing up in extremely segregated Milwaukee, we always lived in “White neighborhoods” and the “inner city” was code for Black neighborhoods. That dichotomy was the source of much of my alienation and shame of being Black as a child. It just seemed that the “Black community” as I understood it, began and ended in the broke down, impoverished neighborhoods on the North side of the city. And the last thing I wanted people to do was associate me with the ills of the inner city. Thankfully, once I left Milwaukee and learned a thing or two, my identity issues dissipated. But now I hear my son making the same connections I did as a child and I freaked out. If he thinks only Black people live in poverty, then will he also surmise that the Black part of him is somehow less than? I couldn’t let that happen.

Of course, I went into overdrive explaining to my son that poor people came in every color of the rainbow and that crappy neighborhoods, like the one we happened to be driving through in North Philly when he made this declaration, weren’t only populated by Black folks. I regaled him with stories of poor neighborhoods where Mexicans lived, and poor White people and poor Asian people. And then I felt really twisted for trying to point out just how depraved and poor people can be all over the city. But still, I could tell he wanted to believe me, but he needed proof. So, dear readers, can you believe that I am planning a tour of poor non-Black neighborhoods so my son can see that poor isn’t a color. Is that twisted and wrong? Or would that help him understand poverty?

The more I think about it though, the more I realize that my son — and even me when I was a child — are simply victims of a false American story and media distortion that likes to portray poverty as a Black problem, which in my opinion is why it never really gets addressed. Poor White people are truly the invisible minority — even though their real numbers are higher than any other impoverished group. The last time I saw a story about poor White people on the news was Diane Sawyer’s 2009 special on the people of Appalachia and their poverty was portrayed as noble instead of the result of personal choices or laziness like it is with people of color.

So, maybe this weekend as the world celebrates St. Patrick’s Day, me and my son will be taking our own poverty tour. Not for nothing, my son isn’t the only one would do well to come on this tour with me. In case you hadn’t heard about the ridiculously racist article in this month’s Philadelphia magazine where the author surmised that all of Philly’s social ills were the fault of Black people. I responded here. My work is never done.


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9 Thoughts to “Poor White People: Where Are They?”

  1. Sally Strange

    Come to upstate NY sometime. Yeah, I think the invisibleness plays into poor white folks’ resistance to getting involved in any sort of political activism on their own behalf, too.

    1. Ms. Meltingpot

      No thanks on the visit 🙂 But I agree 100% on your point about the activism. Sometimes I think poor White people don’t even see themselves as poor if it means aligning themselves with people of color or voting for a Black president. *sigh*

  2. I think about this a great deal seeing as how my day job is director of a non-profit that serves low income families in Maine. Maine is the whitest state in the nation, yet even in the whitest state, I still encounter people who are surprised to learn that most of our clients are white. Even in a white state, people still seem to think poverty is a non-white face.

    Poor white people are invisible, I never knew just how invisible until I moved here. Good question on the part of your son. I had my own work to do around this issue and wish that I had been able to ask that question as a child.

    1. Ms. Meltingpot

      Wow, even in Maine, White poverty is invisible? SMH! Thanks for sharing. The question is, now what? And who really benefits from bringing poor White people into the public view?

  3. Cyretha

    So true, your work is never done. And, just to come back to your post from earlier this week, I think this article is pertinent.


    1. Ms. Meltingpot

      Thanks, Cyretha!

  4. Wendy

    Found this interesting article: http://inequality.org/poverty-matter-black-white/

    From the article:
    This elevated risk reflects past and current institutional practices that put blacks and other minorities at a disadvantage. But it’s also true that almost three-quarters of black incomes do not fall below the poverty line. Collapsing poor and black as if all poor were black and all blacks poor turns the “poverty” problem into a “race” problem.

    The white poverty rate does run much lower than the black rate, just under 10 percent, one-third of the black rate. But the white poor outnumber the black poor considerably, 19 to 7.8 million. White people make up 42 percent of America’s poor, black people about 28 percent.

    The basic numbers don’t change when we look at people living in extreme poverty, in households making less than 50 percent of the meager poverty line. Of the 20 million people who live at this alarming level of want and deprivation, about 42 percent are white, 27 percent black.

    1. Ms. Meltingpot

      Thanks for this. The numbers don’t lie, but clearly people do. And so does the media. It’s a shame and a scandal.

  5. Wendy

    Poor white people? Oh I could introduce you to at least half of my family. Rural Eastern North Carolina is full of poor white people. They are only getting poorer as mid-westerners and northerners move in for retirement, raising the costs. But I digress.
    I can tell you that there is nothing noble about the poverty in Appalachia. (My dad comes from there; I grew up visiting there.) The fact that it was framed that way says a lot about racism. Would the same camera/film crew paint the story the same way of a poor black neighborhood? probably not. So much of “race” is a question of socioeconomic level. For instance, as part of my social work degree, I took a class called “Minority Groups”. That class made me cringe on a nearly daily bases. I felt like it was teaching stereotypes. For instance, “blacks are more likely to engage in kinship care”. Uh, OK so what about my cousin who was raised by my grandma, my friends raised by aunts and grandmothers who are white????? Huh?! Nearly everything that was said about “black people” applied to my “poor” family of rural West Virginia and North Carolina. Neither blacks or whites or any other shade of the rainbow can claim poverty. Institutionalized racism for minority groups and mental illness, disability, lack of opportunities account for poverty of all shades. I worked in a community center for while, nearly everyone that I came in contact with had a mental or physical illness or reduced mental abilities, to be bluntly honest. Our capitalist system is built on the back of racism and those who have the aforementioned hardship. We offer very little safety net, yet we call ourselves a Christian nation? MAKE ME VOMIT! Sorry for my rant.

    Ps. You said this in response to Spain, “It’s hard being a family and an individual” I love it! I am feeling that tug these days!

    Ps. I love this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ipujWRYUjS4

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