Colors of Poverty

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In the mid-1960s, the United States declared a "War on Poverty" and established the first official way to measure it. From that date forward, researchers have observed substantial racial disparities in poverty rates and poverty-related outcomes. Blacks and Latinos are twice as likely as Asians and whites to be poor. Nonpoor black children are more likely than poor white children to be poor when they reach adulthood. Nearly 30 percent of black males are incarcerated at some point in their lives, compared to less than 5 percent of white males. Fifty percent of Asians have college degrees, compared to 30 percent of whites, 17 percent of blacks, and only 11 percent of Latinos.

Substantial effort has been devoted to documenting the extent of these disparities. Yet the more well known they are, the more they have been taken for granted. As Glenn Loury recently noted, research by leading poverty scholars provides "disturbing evidence that racial differences in the experience of poverty are large, intractable, and poorly understood"1. This lack of understanding is rooted partly in the fear that the mention of racial disparities may be viewed as an acknowledgement of racial inferiority; partly in the tendency to see racism as a sufficient cause of the disparities; and partly in the failure of researchers to understand race, not simply as a category of phenotype and ancestry, but as a set of multidimensional phenomena in American society.

This last point is particularly important as the composition of racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. changes. The dramatic overhaul of the American immigration system in the Hart-Cellar Immigration Act of 1965 America’s doors to new migrants, especially from the Americas, Asia, and Africa. Thirty years later, the United States receives more immigrants as a percentage of its population than at any time since the late 19th century. One out of every 10 Americans is now foreign-born. The word "Hispanic" used to be synonymous with "Mexican": today, over 40% of Hispanics trace their origin to countries other than Mexico. Until 1970, Japanese were the largest Asian group in the United States; now they are outnumbered by Asian Indians, Koreans, Chinese, Filipinos, and Vietnamese. African and Caribbean migrants, too, have changed the character of black communities across the country. As racial and ethnic diversity increases, will disparities in life chances increase as well? Or will the growing presence of minority races erode differences in poverty and poverty-related outcomes?

Under the aegis of the National Poverty Center, we held a major conference in Ann Arbor on September 14-16, 2005 and will produce an edited volume in 2007 that will serve as the definitive source for students, researchers, and policymakers who want to understand how and why race and ethnicity affect levels and experiences of poverty. Our project is distinguished by: (1) a focus on the causal mechanisms that have been linked to poverty and, separately, to racial and ethnic construction; (2) an emphasis on critical examination and synthesis of these separate literatures; (3) an evaluation of the most promising research questions and methodologies for future work in this area. Our volume brings together scholars who have written on poverty or poverty-related outcomes with scholars who have written on race/ethnicity and its associated mechanisms to offer sophisticated, novel, and comprehensive theories for the persistence of the link between race, ethnicity, and poverty.

1Loury, Glenn C. 2002. "Politics, Race, and Poverty Research," in Understanding Poverty, edited by Sheldon H. Danziger and Robert H. Haveman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 451.

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