Faculty Forum - Featured Post Posted on Thursday, August 08, 2013

Op-Ed: White Poverty Must Be Good Poverty

Sigmund Shipp Associate Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning, Hunter College; PhD, City and Regional Planning, Cornell University

Lynn McCormick Associate Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning, Hunter College; Ph.D., Regional Economic Policy and Planning, Massachusettes Institute of Technology, 1996

Mary Rocco PhD Student in City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania

The invisibility of white poverty is not a benign situation. The denial of white poverty has led to the social construction of the poor as being solely a person or family of color.

Some journalists and scholars have referred to white poverty as an invisible form of poverty1.  Its invisibility stems from its baffling absence from the discussion about poverty in America. How can this be? Maybe it is a better form of poverty that fails to wreck individual lives, families, and communities? Therefore it deserves no perusal, understanding, or intervention.

In comparison, sociologists, anthropologists, urbanists, economists have spent careers dissecting African-American poverty into discussions about the near poor, unwed mothers female headed households, and welfare dependent; they have analyzed spending habits, marital patterns, family dynamics, school performance, the impact of role models, absence of fathers, the loss of institutions, and work ethic—the list could go on ad infinitum. While some of these studies have been aimed at alleviating these terrible conditions, others have pointed fingers, while offering punitive solutions to resolve poverty in the black community. To a lesser degree, this deep level of analysis and probing has focused on the Latino poor.

At a recent conference, my team of researchers–whose presentation was about white impoverishment–participated in a panel on poverty. The three other presenters all gave papers about some variant of African-American poverty. Our research came as a quite a surprise and garnered a significant amount of comment about the absence of research on white poverty. Several years along I asked graduate students to find publications about white poverty. Their six month search yielded miserable results: two books published in 1974 and 1984 respectively.

Recently, there has been a rash of articles and books published that begin to acknowledge that white poverty is neither invisible nor good. One of the more recent publications comes from the Huffington Post, which this op-end responds to.  According to the author, the pervasiveness of poverty is alarming for not only blacks and Latinos but for the entire nation including whites. The Huffington Post article indicated that 4 of 5 Americans are either poor, unemployed, or have been on welfare. Economic struggle is growing among whites. According to the Huffington-Post article, the number of white poor female headed households with children equaled or was higher than that for black ones over the past decade. There were almost 1.5 million poor white female households in 2011, a number that was equivalent for blacks. To a lesser degree, the number of Hispanic single-mother families in poverty totaled 1.2 million.

Our research which examined white poverty trends in Washington State confirms the above trends.  In this Pacific Northwest State, among the white poor, 11.7% are single parents (including divorced, widowed, never married, spouse not present categories). Overall, 19.4% of all single parents are poor. The poverty rate for white women heads of household with children is twice that of men who are single with children.

The invisibility, if that is the correct term, of white poverty is not a benign situation.  The denial of white poverty has led to the social construction of the poor as being solely a person or family of color. The connotations are negative and problematic with political implications. The belief that poverty is solely a black or brown issue fragments the society along racial lines. This fragmentation dilutes the possibility for class solidarity that is needed to push for health, housing, education, and employment reforms. The racialization of poverty, as our research and other recent studies, indicate is an invalid perspective; the brush stroke needs to be broaden. Given its significance, white poverty must become a part of the discussion about poverty and the search for solutions to resolve this social dilemma.

1. See: Murray, Charles “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010“; Rank, Mark Robert “One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All“; Kneebone, Elizabeth “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America (James A. Johnson Metro)

Sigmund C. Shipp currently is the director of the undergraduate urban studies program. Under his supervision, the program has expanded to a 30 credit program with new offerings that include an urban studies workshop, quantitative analysis, and a structure internship program. His teaching has been far reaching and has included Urban Policies and Plans, Planning Economic Development, Citizen Participation, and the Urban Development Workshop.

His research has ranged from a focus on worker-owned cooperatives, urban renewal, and neighborhood development in the African-American community to his current study of white poverty. His funded research has included support from the Ford and Anne E. Casey Foundations. He played a principal role in developing urban studies as a major for CUNY’s New Community College and helped convene Erasing Boundaries, a national conference on service learning in America, held at Hunter. He has served as a member of the IRB and the Pre-Health Committees at Hunter and was most recently invited to be a board member of the Martin Luther King Community Health Center—a subsidiary of the Bronx-Lebanon Hospital. He most recently developed the department’s first undergraduate/graduate course that focuses on issues of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation in urban areas.

Before her doctorate, Lynn McCormick worked several years as a practicing planner in various agencies, such as the Chicago Housing Authority and the Massachusetts Office of Communities and Development. Her research focuses on community development in a global economic environment, economic development, industrial clusters, and immigrant entrepreneurship. Recent publications have looked at the role of business associations as workforce development intermediaries (with Joshua Hawley & Edwin Meléndez, EDQ, 2008) and how economic development goals have been integrated into sustainability plans in Chicago, NYC & LA (with Donovan Finn, Local Economy, 2010). Professor McCormick also engages in applied planning research (e.g., of NYC Chinatown’s Food-related Cluster with Rui Mao & Yichen Tu).

She has presented her work at professional conferences — the Association for Collegiate Schools of Planning, the American Geography Association, the Urban Affairs Association, the Regional Science Association — and elsewhere. Her work has been funded by organizations such as the Lincoln Land Institute, the Russell Sage Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Economic Policy Institute. Professor McCormick teaches courses on regional economic development and industrial policy, workforce development and employment policy, public policy analysis, and applied studios/workshops.

Mary Rocco is a PhD student in City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania.