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Americans have often—but not always correctly— identified poverty as synonymous with minority status. According to the structural theory of poverty, social and cultural barriers, rather than the economy, prevent certain people from maintaining an adequate material existence. According to the structural view, minority groups cannot advance through a simple plan of economic reform. Structural barriers, such as racial and ethnic prejudice and its effects (such as lack of education), need to be overcome before minority groups can rise out of poverty. Although many conservatives disagree with the structural interpretation, it is undeniable that nonwhite racial and ethnic groups—African Americans, Eastern European immigrants, Jews, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans—have experienced prejudice. The debate is whether or not that prejudice has been strong enough to erect social and cultural barriers that, left unchecked, keep minority groups from ever advancing.
The structural theory of race and poverty formed a cornerstone to Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960s. President Johnson, in the State of the Union speech in January, 1965, declared that, for the century after the Civil War ended, the United States has “labored to establish a unity of purpose and interest among the many groups which make up the American community. That struggle has often brought pain and violence. It is not yet over.” Two months later, Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel P. Moynihan authored a Department of Labor report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, which argued that the African American family in the city was crumbling because of centuries of racial prejudice and that it was up to the American people, through the federal government, to bolster and strengthen the African American family. An important part of this federal attempt was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination, thus opening gaps in social and cultural barriers into which education, activism, and healing could be brought. The Civil Rights Act established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which worked to expose the widespread discrimination against minorities in the workplace. In 1966 the EEOC handled 8,854 discrimination cases, and by 1970 that number had risen to 20,310. Section 709(c) of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act gave the Commission the authority to require employers to keep records and submit reports on the employment status of women and minorities. In 1966 the EEOC required large private companies to submit EEO-1 reports demonstrating the ratio of men and women from five racial or ethnic groups in nine job categories that ranged from laborers to supervisory positions.
The data from EEO-1 reports allowed the EEOC to identify possible areas of employment discrimination; these reports allowed the EEOC to discern patterns of racial discrimination within geographic areas and job type. Between 1967 and 1971, the EEOC held public conferences that exposed discrimination in specific industries, including textile factories in the South, corporations in New York, and the service industry in Houston. According to the EEOC’s findings, minorities constituted more than 30 percent of the population of South Carolina and 22 percent of North Carolina’s population, but African Americans constituted only 8.4 percent of the textile industry employees in these two states. Of these African Americans, over 95 percent were employed in the lowest-paying job categories, and only 2.3 percent were in positions of authority. Likewise, 4,278 companies in New York City submitted EEO-1 reports in 1967, but only 1,827 of these employed a black worker in a white-collar position, and 1,936 of these did not employ any workers with Spanish surnames in white-collar jobs. Finally, EEOC data demonstrated that minorities and women constituted the majority of Houston’s lowest-paying unskilled jobs, despite the city’s overall rise in employment opportunities. EEOC reports concluded that widespread discriminatory employment practices that contributed to the enduring impoverishment of America’s minority groups were common across the nation.
The relative impoverishment of minority groups in America has lessened in recent years, although non-Hispanic whites are still less likely than other groups to live in poverty. In 2005 the poverty rate for non-Hispanic whites was 8.3 percent, and 16.2 million lived in poverty. Overall, non-Hispanic whites accounted for 66.7 percent of the total population, but only 43.9 percent of those below the poverty rate. In comparison, 24.9 percent of blacks—a total of 9.2 million—lived in poverty in 2005; 11.1 percent of Asians, or 1.4 million, lived in poverty; and 21.8 percent of Hispanics, or 9.4 million, were impoverished. In addition, 25.3 percent of American Indians and 12.2 percent of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders lived in poverty in 2005.
These data suggest that race is not a primary determinant of poverty. Although minorities have historically been subject to racial discrimination, low status, and low-paying jobs, it is an oversimplification to assume that racial and ethnic groups constitute the majority of America’s poor or that the majority of the racial and ethnic population is poor. Many individuals of nonwhite races are not poor, and whites represent a significant proportion (nearly 44 percent) of America’s poor.
- Atkins, Jacqueline M., ed., Encyclopedia of Social Work, 18th ed., 2 vols. (Silver Spring, MD: NASW, 1987);
- Moynihan, Daniel P., The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Office of Policy Planning and Research, U.S. Department of Labor (1965) (http://www.dol.gov/oasam);
- Patterson, James T., America’s Struggle against Poverty in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000);
- Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (http://www.eeoc.gov/abouteeoc/35th/index.html).
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