Race and Poverty Linked with Disturbing Forecasts


Nearly half of all children in the United States and 90% of African American children will rely on food stamps at some point during childhood, and fallout from the recession could push those numbers higher.

Sociologists Mark Rank and Thomas Hirschl reviewed data from a nationally representative survey of 4800 African American and white households – about 18,000 adults and children – who were interviewed annually from 1968 through 1997. The survey is the longest running of its kind in the United States.

The researchers found that 49% of all children were on food stamps at some point by age 20, including 90% of Black children and 37% of whites. Participation in the food stamp program is a useful measure of poverty because recipients must be living below the poverty line and have very limited assets to receive food stamps.

These findings are consistent with other studies showing that more than 40% of children in the United States live in poverty or near-poverty and half live at some point in a single-parent family. Children of color are even more vulnerable, as higher percentages live with one parent (65% of African Americans; 49% of Latinos; and 49% of Native Americans), which is a strong risk factor for being poor.

Poor children are significantly more likely to experience health problems – including low birth weight, lead poisoning, mental health disorders, asthma, dental problems, and accidental death – and a range of economic and social problems – such as impaired physical and mental growth, lower academic achievement, greater risk of arrest and incarceration, and increased likelihood of poverty in adulthood.

As the economy has worsened, the income gap between rich and poor families has widened. Newly released census figures show household income falling much more dramatically for poor and middle-income Americans than wealthy Americans, with the poverty rate reaching its highest level in more than a decade.

Families of color have been especially impacted by a weakened economy, layoffs, a tightening job market, and waves of home foreclosures. Between 2000 and 2007, one-third of Black children lived in poverty, and Black unemployment — even among college graduates — consistently ran at about twice the level of white unemployment.

In 2008, on the cusp of the recession, the typical African American family had only a dime for every dollar of wealth possessed by the typical white family. While 43.4% of whites had retirement accounts, compared to 18% of Blacks and Latinos. Forty percent of African Americans nationwide will have endured periods of unemployment or underemployment by 2010.

In response to the economic crisis, more than three-quarters of all states are implementing cuts in social services for poor families with children. Almost half the states are implementing reductions in health insurance coverage for low-income children and families, and many are reducing expenditures on child nutrition, social services, and education programs.

Furthermore, in many states poor families continue to bear the brunt of unfair tax structures. Alabama families living in poverty pay higher income taxes than in any other state. Alabama is one of 16 states that levies a state income tax on a family of four making below the federal poverty line, or less than $22,050 annually.