why are people of color poor? (United States)

why are people of color poor?

behavioral vs. structural explanations

compiled by Professor Amory Starr

what we are trying to explain:
more white people are poor than people of color, but a higher (“disproportionate”)
percentage of people of color are poor than of whites


Holly Sklar, Chaos or Community 1995
Stephanie Coontz, The Way we Never Were 1992,
Maxine Baca Zinn 1989

of poverty claims
are poor because of their culture/values: 

  • culture determines values
  • values determine economic success
  • so groups on the bottom must
    have cultural weaknesses
  • people of color face discrimination
  • lower pay for the same work
  • job ceilings
  • “structural unemployment”: good-paying
    jobs they worked in 1940s-1960s no longer exist (deindustrialization)
don’t do well in school because the culture doesn’t value education
  • African Americans value education
    highly, but kids are still tracked into special ed.
  • schools in lower income communities
    spend far less $ per student
  • urban schools are segregated
    and unequal [Kozol, Savage Inequalities 1992]
Americans don’t have a strong “work ethic”
    • when jobs were available, African
      Americans worked. the problem is that there aren’t jobs. 
    • 1979-1984: ½ of Black
      workers in manufacturing jobs lost their jobs
    • 1930: 8% of Black women were
      unemployed, 1983: 56%

(it can’t be culture, because
culture doesn’t change that quickly!)

would rather live off welfare
  • statistically, there is no such
    thing as “intergenerational welfare” culture
  • most welfare users are short-term
  • people in poverty one year are
    not the same as those the next
  • vast majority of welfare users
    want jobs
  • but few jobs provide healthcare
    for children, which means it’s better for a woman with children to be on
Americans don’t have strong family values, don’t value the nuclear family
  • African American families have
    stayed together through very difficult times (slavery, migration, domestic
  • people of color often have stronger
    family traditions than whites, tend not to institutionalize elders
  • Latinos have very strong family
    values, mostly two-parent households, but this doesn’t save them from poverty.
parent households cause poverty
  • 2/3 of poor Black children in
    single-parent households were poor before their parents split up
  • most poverty increase is
    among two-parent families
  • two working parents don’t get
    families out of poverty!
  • “direction of causation” is the
    problem: actually poverty tends to cause family breakup for people
    of color. (it’s true that among middle class whites, divorce often results
    in poverty for the mother and children, but for people who are already
    poor, those difficulties often lead to divorce)
& Asian Americans have better values, so they do better than African
Americans and Latinos in the economy
  • invisible Jewish & Asian
  • immigration was a choice for
    some, but not for all groups
  • status of immigrants was very
    different: they came with skills and/or capital to start small businesses
of color have low aspirations & motivation, which is why they don’t
get out of poverty
  • psychological tests cannot confirm
    any difference between aspirations/motivation of poor people, people of
    color, whites, and middle or upper income people as groups
  • people with extra high aspirations/motivation
    have no better chance of getting out of poverty than others
causes bad values by encouraging births out of wedlock
  • so we should expect out of wedlock
    births to decrease if welfare is cut. welfare has been cut. this has no
    effect on birthrate.
households don’t provide the right values for raising children
  • divorced/separated/never married
    Black fathers have more contact with children than white ones, but Black
    fathers have fewer resources to help with childraising
American men are irresponsible
  • it’s hard to support a family
    when there are no jobs
  • it would take 3 Black male wage
    earners to lift a family to US median income, 4 to earn enough tot be middle
  • anyway, maybe some women don’t
    want to depend on a man, would like to work. need to pay attention to job
    opportunities (and barriers) for women and mothers as well as fathers
American women don’t take good care of children.
  • African American mothers have
    been forced to work by American economy which does not provide a living
    family wage. 
  • as domestic servants, African
    American mothers had to take care of white children and leave their own
    at home
don’t have the right values in terms of their own finances: they aren’t
thrifty and don’t save money so they can’t move up (no “delayed gratification”,
planning for future)
  • banks redline communities of
    color and refuse to lend money for small businesses and homes inside the
    red line
  • middle income Blacks have higher
    rates of rejection for home loans than low income whites
of color do drugs
  • 70-80% of drug consumption is
    outside of “ghettos”
  • Black high school students have
    had highest rates of reduction of drug use. whites have reduced use, but
    not by as much.
can save you from poverty
  • fastest increase in poverty for
    any group is among young white families with children, families with marriage
    intact. part of this comes from the fact that poverty rates are increasing
    for families headed by young families with college degrees


why don’t we study the “values”
of the very rich, of corporate executives who profit from sweatshops, environmental
pollution, and injured workers?