Category Archives: blacks

Media Mis-colors American Poverty, Undermining Response


We’re at work on a project chronicling that since the early 1990s American working-class youth face declining chances of equal opportunity .

We were thus intrigued by a 8/20/12 PBS NewsHour story – “In Rhode Island, Reinventing Summer School to Prevent Kids’ Learning Loss” — concerning efforts to combat summertime achievement gaps.

But the visuals were highly troubling. While the intro to the story correctly reported that this was about poverty, not race, the pictures were virtually all of African American kids, giving the impression that most if not all of the poor in America are black.

We brought this to their attention and the education correspondent for the NewsHour, John Merrow. [He graciously admitted that the story could have been edited better and his take on the whole episode is on his “Learning Matters” blog.]

There are three things worth amplifying beyond Merrow’s blog post:

1)      Just how off Americans (including well-educated Americans) are on the colors of poverty;

2) how the continued misportrayal of American poor as “non-white” helps continue the trope of poverty equaling race  and makes poor whites more invisible; and

3)  How mis-coloring “poverty” undermines a public response to the problem.

Point #1: The national expert on this issue is Princeton scholar Martin Gilens.  Here is Gilens’ summary of his findings in a landmark 1996 article (cited below):

 Over the past decades, the black urban poor have come to dominate public images of poverty. Surveys show that the American public dramatically exaggerates the proportion of African Americans among the poor and that such misperceptions are associated with greater opposition to welfare. In this article I examine the relationship between news media portrayals and public images of poverty. I find that network TV news and weekly newsmagazines portray the poor as substantially more black than is really the case.

More recent studies have fully confirmed Gilens’ original findings.  In fact, according to a 2000 CBS News poll, only 18% of Americans know that most poor people are white!

Moreover, our own analysis suggests that the misperception may be slightly greater among college-educated whites than among less educated whites, perhaps because the less-educated whites are actually more likely to know poor folks.

Well-educated whites (college graduates) think blacks make up over half of folks on poverty!  (According to the 1991 National Race and Politics Survey).

The right number?  Blacks comprise only 23% of folks in poverty in the US (according to 2010 Census estimates, Table 4 in the above link).

Point #2:  The invisibility of the poor whites in media accounts and hence (according to Gilens) in the resulting public image of American poverty hurts poor whites (by undermining any potential impetus to respond to their plight) and perpetuates the trope that poverty equals poor non-whites.  Politicians and concerned citizens can’t effectively talk about and think about responding to the problem of American poverty if they can’t picture what American poverty looks like.

Point #3: The progressive NewsHour surely aims to encourage viewers to take policy or direct action to thwart the poverty-based educational gaps the story describes. Ironically, Gilens’ book shows in great detail that support for help to the poor is dramatically undermined by this media distortion in who is poor.  Namely, the fact that Americans misperceive that most of the American poor are black, makes them less inclined to respond. With visuals that accurately show the whiteness of poverty in America, media outlets could help overcome this crucial, irrational impediment to effective action against class disadvantage in America.

For more detail on Gilens’ findings, see:

-  Martin Gilens, “Race and Poverty in America: Public Misperceptions and the American News Media,” Public Opinion Quarterly (1996) 60:515-541

- Martin Gillen’s 1999 book Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Anti-Poverty Policy. University of Chicago Press.

More recent citations: van Doorn, Bas W. “Media Portrayals of Poverty and Race in Pre- and Post-Welfare Reform America.” Portland, OR: Western Political Science Association Annual Meetings, 2012.

Clawson, Rosalee A., and Rakyua Trice. 2000. “Poverty as We Know It – Media Portrayals of the Poor.” Public Opinion Quarterly 64(1), no. 1: 53-64.

See NewsHour story “In Rhode Island, Reinventing Summer School to Prevent Kids’ Learning Loss”  [Note:  the NewsHour has vowed to repost video that attempts to correct their incorrect portrayal so what you see may not be the original version that aired, but instead their attempt to correct the original misrepresentation of American poverty.]

White achievement gap by class exceeds black-white gap

White class gap in math test scores as great now as black-white gap in the racial backwater prior to Brown vs. Board of Ed.

The New York Times had a powerful and alarming story today “Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Show“.

One thing that the story didn’t point out is that the class gaps even just within non-Hispanic whites are growing and this also exceeds the black-white test score gap.  I’ve appended a chart showing the within whites 90/10 math scores over time [comparing the math scores of a white child in a family earning $160,000 to the math scores over time of a white child in a family earning $17,500 in 2008].  [This is from an Appendix to Sean Reardon's paper, Figure 5.A2.]

The first graph shows that by 2000, the within white class gap (90/10) ratio has now risen to almost 1.25. It started rising with the birth cohort born around 1972, or in other words high school seniors around 1990.  This white class gap has risen about 65% from 0.75 in the early 1970s to almost 1.25 by 2000.   Reardon notes that 1.0 on this scale is about the difference in math between a 5th grader and an 8th grader.  So the white class gap is probably nearing the difference between an average 5th grader and a 9th grader.  [Interestingly, the white class gaps for math are greater than the class gaps within Blacks or Hispanics, probably because the wealth gap between the 90th and 10th percentiles for whites are wider than the similar wealth gap among Hispanics or Blacks.]

The second graph solid line shows whites and non-whites together but the dotted line on the second chart (the black-white racial gap) has been almost halved over the last 60 years from about 1.2, dropping to around 0.65 by 2000 (about the difference between a 5th grader and a 7th grader).

So even if you take race completely out of the equation, the class gap in math (and reading scores) within whites is almost DOUBLE the racial gap along these same measures and upper class whites are about 2 grade levels ahead compared to the black-white gap.  And the within white class gap in math test scores is about as great as the black-white test score gap in math was in the racial backwater leading up to Brown vs. Board of Education when the Supreme Court recognized that racially separate schools were inherently unequal.

The conclusion is that our focus on racial inequality in education has been important in halving these differences, but in an era of deindustrialization of America and the decline of good-paying high-school education jobs, we need to be paying as great attention to class gaps in math and English achievement if we hope to have vibrant social mobility in the decades ahead for the white working and lower middle class.

See somewhat related strong Op-Ed by Nick Kristof “The White Underclass” (2/9/12) (acknowledging some of the social truth of the cultural and family collapse of the white working class as Charles Murray’s Coming Apart does, while also identifying the much larger structural changes taking place as well which Murray does not).

See earlier blog post on social mobility in America.

2010 voter turnout up, but not for youth and blacks (UPDATED)

Flickr photo by Dean Terry

Preliminary evidence suggests that voting turnout among all Americans was up in the November 2010 election.  Compared with the last non-presidential election (2006), both voting turnout experts (Curtis Gans and Michael McDonald) agree that turnout among eligible voters rose 1.1-1.2 percentage points (based on preliminary estimates that will obviously change as all ballots are counted and certified). Regardless of whether one likes the outcome in 2010, it is civic good news that more Americans got involved.

Preliminary evidence suggests electoral turnout rose in at least nine states, and significantly in Texas, Florida and Minnesota.  Ohio and Pennsylvania, among other states, seems to have experienced a turnout decline.  [Curtis Gans projects voting turnout at 42 percent of registered voters; Michael McDonald believes that 41.5% of voting-eligible Americans turned out to vote.]  Note: McDonald has now lowered his turnout estimate 1.2 percentage points to 40.3% (VEP Highest Office Turnout, as of 11/8/10).

But the bad news is what voices are being heard or not heard. Voting turnout rates were down among young voters (18-29) and blacks made up a lower percentage of voters in 2010 than in 2008 when Obama’s candidacy excited African-Americans to vote.  For example, blacks made up 12% of voters in 2008 and appeared to make up just 10% of voters in 2010 (based on exit polls).  This drop, if it holds up in more authoritative numbers like the Current Population Survey would  negate this encouraging finding reported in 2008 that the black-white voting gap had disappeared.    [Exit polls suggest that Hispanics maintained their share of the electorate, rising from 7% in 2008 to 8% in 2010, although one would have to compare this rise against their expanding voting-eligible numbers to truly understand whether their political voice was diluted, and if so, how much.]  It wasn’t a simple story of the richest folks’ accounting for more of the votes, since those earning $100,000 or more accounted for 26% of the votes in both 2008 and 2010, but due to the elimination of restrictions on corporate campaign contributions in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United case, the wealthy disproportionately had chances to influence election outcomes even before voters got to their polling places.

[For information on 2008 turnout, click here.]

No gap in black-white turnout in 2008 elections; youth gap narrowing

pewturnoutgraph-050109The Pew Research Center, in partnership with CIRCLE released a report showing that Asians, Hispanics and Blacks voted in record numbers in the 2008 election, partially spurred by the magnetic candidacy of Barack Obama.  America’s three biggest minority groups — blacks, Hispanics and Asians — comprised almost a quarter of all voters for president in 2008. The increases in minority voting were driven by increases both in numbers of voters and the rate of election turnout.

The second table shows especially large increases in the turnout rate among blacks, and especially black women (not charted), although all non-white groups showed increases.  [Black turnout rose from 60% in 2004 to 65% in 2008, virtually indistinguishable from the voting rates of whites at 66%.]

68.8% of eligible black female voters voted in 2008 (an increase of 5.1 percentage points, from 63.7% in 2004), so that black women were the highest voting of any racial-gender pairing.

pewturnoutgraph2-050109So the interesting takeaway from all this was that although the voting rate in November (despite all the money spent on the campaign and the telegenic candidacy of Obama) was relatively unchanged, but the composition of the voters definitely did change, with whites continuing to disengage and non-whites becoming more active.

The region of the country that saw the most dramatic increases in black voter turnout rate was in the South.

Obviously the $1,000,000 question is whether these behavioral changes are likely to continue beyond the Obama candidacy.  One piece of good news for those interested in seeing non-white voting rates continue to rise, is the behavior of younger Americans, as youth tend to keep the civic habits they demonstrate in their teens and twenties.  And this was also good news, especially for blacks.

CIRCLE’s analysis revealed that the “youth gap” ( younger Americans voting at lower rates than older Americans) continued to shrink in 2008. [For example, voters 18-29 voted at rates 24 percentage points less than Americans 30 and older in 2000 but this narrowed to a gap of 16 percentage points less in 2008.]  But minorities also saw good news in the turnout of various ethnic groups.  Young black adults’ voting rates (ages 18-29) increased by 17% from 49.5% in 2004 to 58.2% in 2008.  For the first time, the turnout among 18-29 year old blacks was higher than any other racial and ethnic group in 2008.  While white youth voting rates were relatively flat from 2004 to 2008, mixed race youth voting at 55%, almost 10 percentage points higher than in 2004 (perhaps motivated by voting for a mixed-race president).  Latino and Asian turnout rates continued to increase, but they significantly trailed turnout rates of whites, mixed race and black youth voters.  (The only youth group to see a decline in voting rates in 2008 was Native American Non-Hispanics.)

So the increases in youth turnout, if they persist could help change the distortion in our democratic process toward politicians being more responsive to the needs of older voters, and if non-white voters continue to increase their voting turnout rates and white turnout rates continue to decline, this may also start to change the voices heard in the democratic process.

See also: No Racial Gap Seen in ’08 Turnout (NYT, 5/1/09)