Poverty not the same for all kinds of people

WILEY A. HALL

October 13, 1992|By WILEY A. HALL

Well-meaning researchers keep trying to psych white society into doing the right thing for minorities. But white society refuses to bite.

Last week, for example, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a study showing that more whites are living in poverty than any other group in the United States. Moreover, the researchers found that whites receive the lion's share of government assistance.

The authors of the report obviously hoped this news would slice through many of the common stereotypes about the poor, thereby dissolving some of the public hostility to anti-poverty programs.

"This report is an attempt to further understanding about the nation's single largest group of poor people, as well as to help bridge the racial divide," said Isaac Shapiro, senior research analyst with the Washington-based think tank. "As greater attention is paid to the shared consequences . . . it may become less difficult to achieve a consensus on policy reforms that could be of help to all groups."

But white society, as I've said, is not so easily manipulated -- and for good reason.

Look more closely at this latest study and you will see that the nature of poverty for whites is not the same as for blacks and Hispanics. Whites living in poverty are more likely to be elderly and are more likely to have had work experience. And government programs that benefit the elderly and the working poor tend to be better funded and enjoy greater political support. The benefits paid out by those programs are much higher and carry far less stigma than programs aimed at the black and Hispanic poor.

Consequently, said Mr. Shapiro, whites are more than twice as likely than blacks and Hispanics to be lifted out of poverty by government assistance.

In short, the majority population group has carefully crafted the nation's anti-poverty effort so that it benefits whites the most. Surprise, surprise.

Nearly all the nation's programs and institutions behave the same way: Schools serving predominantly white communities are better funded than schools serving minority populations, and prescriptions for "education reform" are carefully sculpted so as not to upset that relationship. In addition, the nation's lending institutions remain most likely to approve loan applications from whites living in white communities. Meanwhile, most federal and state programs to promote home ownership reinforce that pattern.

You can go right down the line: Most government funds to assist small businesses go to white-owned small businesses. Government funds to treat drug addiction are used most efficiently in predominantly white suburban communities. The most politically acceptable proposals for health-care reform are unlikely to meet the needs of minority communities. White families are best able to take advantage of government programs designed to help them send their children to college. And when a program is designed to meet minority needs, whites rise up in protest against it.

"The sad thing," said Mr. Shapiro, "is that given the political will, our society probably could do a lot more against poverty than we are now."

In Europe, for instance, government anti-poverty programs are far more effective than in the U.S.

"The reason is clear," said Timothy M. Smeeding, a researcher at the Maxwell School of Public Affairs at Syracuse University. "European societies provide more protection and more cushioning and the taxpayer is willing to bear a higher role in taxes to pay for it."

Last week's report on white poverty in the U.S. noted that whites have been particularly hard hit by the recession. White poverty grew 14 percent from 1989 to 1991, compared with a 10 percent growth in poverty among blacks. Not surprisingly, discontent with the economy is being felt by the political system -- and in the elections next month is likely to bring a near-record turnover in Congress and possibly a new occupant of the White House.

But don't be surprised if large numbers of blacks and Hispanics remain unaffected by whatever anti-poverty efforts get adopted after the smoke clears. When it comes to who gets helped and how, political might makes right.

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