Category Archives: poverty

Media Mis-colors American Poverty, Undermining Response

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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.]

Give me liberty or give me terrorists

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting piece by David Wessel (Princeton Economist Says Lack of Civil Liberties, Not Poverty, Breeds Terrorism, 7/5/07).

Wessel cites famed Princeton economist Alan Krueger that lack of civil liberties (much to many’s surprise)  is a better predictor of terrorist involvement than poverty.

“As a group, terrorists are better educated and from wealthier families than the typical person in the same age group in the societies from which they originate,” Mr. Krueger said at the LSE in 2006 in research from his forthcoming book, “What Makes a Terrorist?

Krueger notes that “There is no evidence of a general tendency for impoverished or uneducated people to be more likely to support terrorism or join terrorist organizations than their higher-income, better-educated countrymen”. And he observes that 9-11 perpetrators were relatively well-off men from a rich country, Saudi Arabia.

Wessel notes: “Among the statistical pieces of the puzzle a small band of academics have assembled since are these:

 Backgrounds of 148 Palestinian suicide bombers show they were less likely to come from families living in poverty and were more likely to have finished high school than the general population. Biographies of 129 Hezbollah shahids (martyrs) reveal they, too, are less likely to be from poor families than the Lebanese population from which they come. The same goes for available data about an Israeli terrorist organization, Gush Emunim, active in the 1980s.
 
“• Terrorism doesn’t increase in the Middle East when economic conditions worsen; indeed, there seems no link. One study finds the number of terrorist incidents is actually higher in countries that spend more on social-welfare programs. Slicing and dicing data finds no discernible pattern that countries that are poorer or more illiterate produce more terrorists. Examining 781 terrorist events classified by the U.S. State Department as “significant” reveals terrorists tend to come from countries distinguished by political oppression, not poverty or inequality.
 
“• Public-opinion polls from Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey find people with more education are more likely to say suicide attacks against Westerners in Iraq are justified. Polls of Palestinians find no clear difference in support for terrorism as a means to achieve political ends between the most and least educated.”

The case is far from open-and-shut, but Krueger believes that providing civil liberties and political rights is a better way of fighting terrorism.  Mr. Krueger asserts: “When nonviolent means of protest are curtailed, malcontents appear to be more likely to turn to terrorist tactics.”

It may be cold comfort when countries that pride themselves on civil liberties (like the US and UK) are victims of terrorism, but it does suggest that curbing civil liberties under things like the Patriotism Act run the risk of making things worse, not better.