Debunking the Big Lie Right-Wingers Use to Justify Black Poverty and Unemployment
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
In April, the Oklahoma legislature passed a constitutional amendment that would do away with affirmative action policies in the Sooner State. Sally Kern, a state rep vying for the coveted title of Most Extreme Lawmaker in America, explained her rationale for supporting the amendment, saying (among a slew of nutty things) that “it's character that ought to count, not whether you're white or black... it should be your willingness to say, 'I'm going to become everything I can become.'"
Kern suggested that blacks simply don't work as hard as whites. “I’ve taught school,” she said, “and I saw a lot of people of color who didn’t study hard because they said the government would take care of them.”
Kern was simply advancing one of the most enduring and pernicious untruths in America's political economy. It holds that poverty – in general, but especially within communities of color – doesn't result from purely economic factors. Rather, the poor are where they find themselves as a consequence of some deep-seated cultural flaws that keep them from achieving success. They're held back, the story goes, by what is known alternatively as a “culture of poverty,” or a “culture of dependence.” It's a popular fable for the right, as it absolves the political establishment for public policies that harm the working class and the poor.
It's also thoroughly and demonstrably untrue, flying in the face of decades of serious research findings.
It's a myth that should be put to rest by the economic experience of the African American community over the past 20 years. Because what Kern and other adherents of the “culture of poverty” thesis can't explain is why blacks' economic fortunes advanced so dramatically during the 1990s, retreated again during the Bush years and then were completely devastated in the financial crash of 2008.
In order to buy the cultural story, one would have to believe that African Americans adopted a “culture of success” during the Clinton years, mysteriously abandoned it for a “culture of failure” under Bush and finally settled on a “culture of poverty” shortly after Lehman Brothers crashed.
That's obviously nonsense. It was exogenous economic factors and changes in public policies, not manifestations of “black culture,” that resulted in those widely varied outcomes.
The Clinton Boom, the Bush Bust and the Great Black Depression
During the Clinton years, African Americans saw the greatest economic advances in memory. Over the course of the 1990s, millions of black families joined the middle class. With a booming economy and Clintonian policies like the Earned Income Tax Credit, which pulled millions of low-income families out of desperation, the poverty rate among African Americans hit its lowest point in U.S. history in 2000. Black poverty fell by more than 10 percentage points between 1993 and 2000, and poverty among African American children dropped by an unprecedented 10.7 percentage points in five years (from 41.9 percent in 1995 to 31.2 percent in 2000).
But a little-known fact is that even before the recession hit in 2008, blacks had already taken a huge step back economically during the 2000s. By 2007, African Americans had already lost all of those gains from the 1990s. That year, sociologist Algernon Austin wrote, “On all major economic indicators—income, wages, employment, and poverty—African Americans were worse off in 2007 than they were in 2000.”
Although the Great Recession obviously hit everyone hard, it didn’t cause everyone equal pain. In 2007, the difference between white and black unemployment rates fell to the lowest point in years: just 3 percentage points. Yet as the economy fell into recession, that gap quickly grew again, and by April 2009 it had doubled, reaching a 13-year high. As the economy began to turn around in 2009, African Americans didn’t see much recovery; median household income rose 7 percent for white families and only 1 percent for blacks.