Urban Wire Two American experiences: The racial divide of poverty
Diana Elliott
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Earlier this year, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, In its pervasiveness, concentration, and reach across class lines, black poverty proves itself to be ‘fundamentally distinct’ from white poverty.” He argues that to address poverty, race needs to be integrated into the discussion, and policies need to acknowledge this divide. And when we look at the data, he’s right.

Numerically, there are more white Americans in poverty than black Americans or members of any other race or ethnic group. In 2014, 19.6 million white, non-Hispanic Americans were living in poverty, compared with 10.2 million black Americans, 2.3 million Asian Americans, and 13.4 million Hispanic Americans of any race. There is no denying that many white Americans experience poverty. But isn’t incidence and persistence of poverty—the idea that there could be different poverty rates for white and black America at any given point in time and that poverty carries over time and across generations within families—what we really care about?

On both incidence and persistence of poverty, white and black Americans have different experiences. Let’s imagine two young children born in the late 1960s in the United States, one black and one white. In 1974, the official poverty rate for all children under age 18 was 15.4 percent. Behind those numbers, we see that the black child was four times more likely to experience poverty than the white child.

Forty years later, the child poverty rate is higher than it was in 1974 (21.1 percent), and a black child in 2014 is still three times more likely to be in poverty than a white child. In most years over the last four decades, at least one-third of black children were living in poverty. Poverty is not an equal opportunity experience.

Poverty rate by race, under age 18

Poverty is more persistent across generations of black families than white families. Thinking back to our black and white children born in the late 1960s, what is the likelihood that their childhood poverty carries over into adulthood? Among children who spent at least one year in poverty, a black child is twice as likely as a white child to also be poor as an adult (43 versus 20 percent). Perhaps more astonishingly, though, black adults have roughly the same chance of experiencing poverty (43 versus 41 percent) regardless of whether or not they were ever poor as children. This stark finding suggests that black families are paying an unfairly high social and economic price in our society.*

Poverty and race chart

Our challenge is to acknowledge that black poverty is fundamentally different than white poverty and to recognize that our policies are not confronting this racial divide adequately. This is a complicated issue that cuts across our neighborhood and residential patterns, our educational system, our financial structures, and even our political and civic engagement. But if we truly believe that America is the land of opportunity, we should be willing to work harder to dismantle poverty’s racial divide so that all children—regardless of race—can succeed.

*This paragraph has been updated to better reflect the disparities between black and white children's likelihood of experiencing poverty as adults. 


With funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Urban Institute is supporting the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty, a collaborative aimed at discovering permanent ladders of mobility for people experiencing poverty.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and should not be attributed to the organizations represented by the 25 members of the Partnership or to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.


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Research Areas Race and equity Social safety net
Tags Poverty Inequality and mobility Racial barriers to accessing the safety net Structural racism
Policy Centers Research to Action Lab
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