When A Picture Tells Two Stories
Every picture tells a story, but sometimes they tell more than one. Often the story we see is based on where we’re sitting. Because the view can look very different from different perspectives.
Take this graph, for example. It shows the number of households in each income bracket for whites and blacks in 2018. You can see that the household income for blacks, shown in red, is much more likely to be lower than higher. The outer ring, which shows the number of household earning less than $30 thousand per year, is significantly larger than the others. According to the Census Bureau, 6 million black households, or 37%, are in this lower bracket.
Based on this, we can expect blacks to be less likely to have less access to health care, education, legal help, and a wide variety of other resources essential to wellbeing. And statistics bear this out. Early reports are showing, for example, that blacks and other people of color are more likely to die of the coronavirus than whites.
But there’s another story in this picture, one that’s easy to overlook: There are far more poor white people than poor black people. According to the Census Bureau, there are 21 million white households earning less than $30,000 per year– more than three times as many! But that represents a much lower proportion (21%) of white households.
Both stories are true. Which is more important? That depends on where you’re sitting. Obviously if you’re in that lower bracket, the story that describes you and your community is most important.
It’s worth noting that the vast majority (92%) of black households live in urban areas. Only 8% live outside metropolitan districts. On the other hand, 15% of whites live outside urban areas. And rural whites are more likely to be poor than urban whites.
So are rural blacks. Though a small minority of black households (1.4 million) are rural, they are far more likely (57%) to be in the bottom bracket. Numerically, the majority of low income black families live in cities (5.6 million vs 800,000 in rural areas).
And there are almost as many low-income white families (4.4 million) living in rural areas.
You can see how these statistics would pit two narratives against each other. Yes, black households are more likely to have lower incomes, and that’s an injustice that needs to be addressed. Yes, white families are less likely to have lower incomes, but that’s little consolation if you’re in one of the 21 million families that does.
Imagine, when people talk about helping one of these two groups, what the reactions are in the other group. “Why are you helping them and not us?” Because in this time of highly unequal wealth, when we talk about helping one group, we’re quite literally taking food from the mouths of the other. There just aren’t that many jobs that pay well.
If you think that doesn’t contribute to political polarization, think again. One side sees low-income whites as privileged racists, and the other sees income disappearing and a lot of effort to give what’s left to someone else.
The real problem is twofold: people of color have less access to resources, and resources are made more scarce by unequal distribution. This is not an either/or problem. It’s a both/and problem. We need to continue to break down economic barriers for people of color. AND we need to ensure that every family has the opportunity to make a living wage.
Otherwise, we’re pitting low income families against each other. And that rarely ends well.