Skip to main content

Poverty as a Black and White Issue

The poverty of a white coal miner, a black urban factory worker, or an unemployed rez Indian stinks. What's worse is when they turn against each other.

There’s only one thing worse than watching a white person grapple with the maldistribution of wealth in this uber wealthy nation, and it didn’t come up in the July 8 New York Times.

The tale unfolded in the first person, written by Tracie McMillan, who found herself in a morbidly ironic state of temporary poverty. Our current president would call it a cash flow problem and just quit paying his bills until a time he found it more convenient, a solution not available to McMillan from her station in life.

She had accepted an advance to write a book about poverty. It’s the subject matter that provides industrial strength irony in this tale. The fact of getting an advance at all in these times of declining literacy placed her among the privileged, and she recognized that.


The privilege of winning a publication contract for a book not yet birthed lost a lot of its charm when she discovered the cash award would not cover her health insurance and rent.

At age 34, Tracie McMillan had to consider applying for food stamps and to contemplate her feelings about allowing herself to be caught by a government safety net intended for the poor.

After all, I was a college-educated white woman who worked. I wasn’t “really” poor.

It’s part of being college-educated that anecdotes no longer answer policy questions, but only drive you to the numbers that might. In this case, she was the anecdote.

Her childhood bouts with poverty had been fought for the most common reasons: pre-Obamacare medical debt and unemployment.

My family had battled medical debt and unemployment when I was a kid, and I started working at 14.

As most American Indians do, she lived in rural America, where the post WWII economic boom was slow to materialize and quick to disintegrate.

Those of us who think in terms of public policy rather than acts of the gods see a perfect storm beginning with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The boom was riding a wave of cheap energy and the producers were watching the boom from the outside, either because the leadership of the post-imperialism petro-states was peopled by incompetent kleptocrats or because “cheap energy” was kept too cheap by neo-colonial interference.

The truth was a bit of both, and it took the oil cartel a long time from its founding in 1961 to develop the broad membership and the discipline necessary to raise oil prices at will. In response, President Jimmy Carter put on a full court press of subsidies and public education to turn the country towards renewable sources of power.

Fighting back against OPEC gave us the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards in 1975, two years after OPEC began an oil embargo against the U.S., while President Carter wore a sweater to conserve heat in the White House and put solar panels on the roof.

The price of gasoline and the Iranian hostage crisis gave us President Ronald Reagan, who ripped the solar panels off the White House roof and union advocates off the National Labor Relations Board. Since 1979, union membership is down, productivity is up, but wages are down.

In America, “real” poverty is not about a lack of work, but a lack of compensation.

Tracie McMillan, I’m pretty sure because of the context, refers to the gap between the increases in what each worker produces and the increases in what each worker gets paid. When the unions were strong, you could put those numbers on a bar chart and they would hug each other like CO2 emissions and temperature.

Most people can easily see that, without unions, employers get all increased production and there’s no collective bargaining table where you can argue what split would be fair. Less easy to see is how unions put upward pressure on the wages of workers who never joined a union.

The first reason is that a contract covering a bargaining unit certified by the NLRB applies to all workers in the unit. Less visible but probably more important is that the terms of union contracts define the “prevailing wage” in the area. Government contracts are required to pay prevailing wage and other employers wind up having to do the same to compete for the best workers.

The observation that poverty is about a lack of compensation rather than a lack of work applies to Indian country in an entirely different way. Drive through any northern Plains Indian rez with an unemployment rate of 50 percent or greater.

The housing, most of it occupied by elders and children, is often in great need of repair. The infrastructure is seldom well maintained. There is plenty of work that needs doing but few jobs with a wage-paying entity.

Those among us enamored of what is alleged to be indigenous economics must admit we are just as short of citizens prepared to take responsibility for community needs as the colonists are. Altruism is not carried in Indian blood or in the public schools on the rez.

The qualification for being poor is not race or education, but an insurmountable gap between income and cost of living.

Black people are told they are stereotyped as the face of poverty because the bargain with the devil of slavery in the Constitution meant that they never learned to compete. I think it’s simpler than that. The category called “race” may be imaginary, but color is not.

Color is an easy focus for attention. It’s dark skin and not any behavior that is an invitation to discriminate in a negative way. Ask any FBI (“Full Blooded Indian”).

In one assessment of three American news magazines between 1950 and 1992, African-Americans were used as subjects in stories about poverty 53 percent of the time, while constituting just 29 percent of the nation’s poor.

Indians have no say in their own stereotypes, let alone anybody else’s. Our economic stereotypes come in pairs. “Lo, the poor Indian” is one stereotype. Lazy and undeserving people made rich by casinos is another. Note that according to stereotype, the Indians can’t win.

Indians are either hapless victims or beneficiaries of dumb luck, with an emphasis on dumb. With or without money, Indians have no agency. Poverty happens or wealth happens but when it happens to Indians it is luck of the draw.

(M)edia jobs are more likely to be in cities, where poverty skews black and brown, than in rural areas, where it skews white.

What about media jobs on the rez? There are the tribal newspapers and a few tribal radio stations. Many rezes are checkerboarded with white property owners. The media jobs are mostly with tribal governments, but if they weren’t and if they wanted to report on tribal poverty, who would care?

Tribal media have little incentive to traffic in poverty porn. Especially at this historical moment, when the Zeitgeist of the Republicans that dominate two branches of government and are close to taking the third is that poor people deserve their situation. The poor are stupid or lazy or both, unable to compete. Inferior.

It would be hard to focus commercial media on the fact that most poor people are white and the truth about Indian poverty can only be known after a big dive into esoteric numbers and even then the result is misleading because Indian nations have unique histories, over five hundred of them.

Some of us believe that the best way to help the poor is to give them money. Since Bill Clinton’s reforms, the money comes conditioned upon going to school or hunting for work. Disputing the conditions is not fruitful, but they do not account for the existential void purposely created for Indians by the colonists.

Many reservations were never economically viable nor were they meant to be. The plan was that “Indians not taxed” would live in squalor and in a condition of dependence until they drifted away to assimilate among the urban poor.

During the termination and relocation period, Indians were offered small stipends and temporary services as incentives to abandon the reservations.

The Dawes Act destroyed some reservations by allotment and left others checkerboarded, land bought by white people here and land owned by individual Indians there. Allotment, even when the policy was reversed before everything was sold, destroyed the tribes as economic units.

It was an involuntary immersion in dog-eat-dog values. Now they call the survivors lazy.

Our poverty is poignant because it was imposed from the outside, rendering the landlords of the Americas homeless in terms of economic viability. But suppose our poverty were garden variety?

To pick a population both hard working and white and only recently sunk into abject poverty, look at coal country. The coal mines, at first unable to compete with cheap natural gas and now with renewable sources of electricity, have mostly closed, destroying good union jobs where men traded their health for the best wages to be had in the area.

Now the political right, President Trump, tells these people he'll open the coal mines again so they can all get black lung but they won't have to beg anymore. You bet they would do it and so would I....but Trump has no buyer for the mythical coal.


The left would like to fund a program to teach them computer coding, these people the Computer Age left wielding picks and shovels in malodorous pits until the decision-makers realized the coal was killing them along with the miners.

The one thing worse than tasting the poverty of a white coal miner or a black urban factory worker whose job went to Mexico or an Indian on the rez who never trained for a job where the unemployment rate remains over 80 percent and there are no unions watching these people turn on each other, is that they blame each other.

The belief that the poor deserve their poverty because they are lazy and stupid knows no “race.” Poverty itself knows no race. It’s all about class interests, with the Donald Trumps of the world, in the immortal words of Jim Hightower, born on third base and concluding they hit a triple.

They are wealthy not because they were born with it but because they are as smart and hardworking as we are dumb and lazy. It’s all fair.

Unless the Tax Code favors the rich, then the rich will not work. “Job creators” will quit creating. Since their children go to private school, public schools serve no function but to take taxes away from the rich and spend the money on the poor. Taxes distort the markets by redistributing wealth.

Unless the poor are kept hungry, then the poor will not work. Food stamps destroy the incentive to work, as does public housing. Unions distort the markets by forcing employers to pay more than the labor is worth.

If anybody says it’s not fair, they are accused of “class warfare.” The market is inherently fair and it says what jobs there are would distribute themselves correctly if civil rights laws did not interfere. White people are harder working and smarter than Indians, who are harder working and smarter than African-Americans.

Poverty is all about “race,” and if you claim it’s about class then you must be a communist.

The swell folks are correct about one thing. They are correct when they say there is class warfare, but they can only see it when the working class fights back.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a retired Texas trial court judge and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.