The Poverty Pyramid: Who’s Got it Worst in America?

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A child eating her lunch with other children in the background. Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

For all the prevalence of poverty and childhood poverty in America, it surprises me that we don’t talk about it more openly as a nation, or deepen the conversation to a level where we feel like we’re actually learning something. The few times when we do really stand out.

Earlier this year I had the privilege of attending a presentation on “Toxic Inequality,” featuring the work of Thomas Shapiro, Ph.D., who’s authored a book by the same name. The event was hosted by San Antonio’s branch of the Asset Funders Network, appropriate as that city strives to bring equity more intentionally front and center in numerous conversations about its future.

Shapiro talked about how we often look at “income inequality” but focus just on current earnings — and then see the obvious and persistent racial and ethnic divide over time (Whites and Asians out-earn Blacks and Hispanics year after year, good years and bad).

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The incredible difference in wealth accumulation between white, black and Hispanic families over time. Courtesy: Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University.

But what we don’t as often take a look at is how wealth and asset accumulation is even more strongly unequal over people’s lifetimes, as this slide from Shapiro’s work shows. I was intrigued enough to pick up Shapiro’s book — and reading it found about 20 ways he pointed out in which wealth disparity is strongly unequal for Blacks and Hispanics when compared to Whites, due to what we would more largely call “structural racism” as well as cultural disparities.

As I’ve been reading more about compound poverty, deep poverty and other topics since then, I’ve been struck by how often the “penalty” for being a person of color is introduced. Not only is the deck stacked against the poor, it’s even “more stacked” against people of color — and in numerous ways that together make it even harder to bounce back from. (It’s at this point that many people of color are probably rolling their eyes, thinking, “Tell me something I don’t already know” from lived experience.)

Gillian White had a great piece in the Atlantic on “compound poverty,” in which she pointed out that of five factors associated with poverty (above), half of Americans experience one of the five, and a quarter of Americans experience two or more. But there again, the racial and ethnic divide intervenes. Blacks and Hispanics are more than twice as likely as Whites to experience two or more, and five times as likely to experience four or more.

For cities like San Antonio — and other major cities that are now what’s known as “majority-minority” cities — it’s important to consider how people of color are experiencing the effects of compound poverty, not just one aspect of poverty.

One of the great points in White’s article is that even when Whites, Blacks and Hispanics are “equally poor,” they’re still experiencing poverty differently. For example, these differences persist nationally even when all three groups live below poverty: ž

Whites are more likely to live in better neighborhoods, in better housing, and have better access to superior education and healthcare;

žHispanics are more likely to have lower educational levels and poor access to health care;

žBlacks are more likely to live in bad neighborhoods and lack jobs.

And that’s not all.

Other research and policy reports I’ve been reading lately make it clear that in their work, too, outcomes for Blacks and Hispanics are worse, essentially adding in another substantial penalty on top of the penalties already in play.

The Parent Trap,” an outstanding read from Demos about the “income penalty” for parents of young children under five years old, makes it clear it’s even worse for parents of color and single parents — and worse yet again for single parents of color.

According to their report, “žFor parents of color, the income penalty associated with having a young child is compounded by the broader labor market disadvantages faced by people of color. . . due to:

Lower educational levels;

Labor market discrimination;

Occupational segregation; and

Other factors

žThese factor combine to make it even harder for parents of color to make ends meet.”

The Asset Funders Network’s brief on “Income Volatility” — they sponsored Shapiro’s talk on “Toxic Inequality” — clarifies yet again how wild surges and dips in income, becoming the new norm for many families as on-demand scheduling and other inhumane practices affect families’ ability to plan for and offset crises, also affects people of color disproportionately, since these practices are more common in retail, hospitality and service industries, where Blacks and Hispanics are often employed, and earning poverty wages.

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A map provided by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas from about high-speed Internet access in San Antonio, TX tracks with maps of where poverty and affluence are concentrated in the area as well.

Jordana Barton’s work for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas on the Digital Divide, an outgrowth of her extraordinary work exploring barriers within Las Colonias on the Texas-Mexico border, creates an opportunity to lead directly to an examination of who’s without high-speed Internet access in a given community, and how that impacts ability to accomplish all sorts of goals associated with personal and economic success, from doing homework, applying to college (and financial aid), applying for jobs online, becoming an entrepreneur, connecting with banking, health care and insurance, researching and evaluating providers of any kind, and searching for and following up on any number of resources and opportunities — all things people on the comfortable side of the digital divide customarily take for granted.

For those living in “deep poverty” — the state of living below 50 percent of the poverty level(!), the equivalent of living on less than $12,550 for a family of four, based on 2018 federal poverty guidelines — again the prevalence is once again that it’s higher among Blacks (13 percent of the population) or Hispanics (10 percent) than Whites (4 percent). It’s also an important issue with young children (12 percent of children under six years old) and single mothers (16 percent).

As I’ve spent time reading and thinking about poverty implications lately, these five groups seem to come up consistently in any in-depth look at poverty impacts: Blacks, Hispanics, parents of young children under five, single parents, and young children. When you start trying to look at the compound effects there, it’s easier to conceptualize than it is to illustrate.

(And this may be part of why the conversations about poverty seem both way too infrequent given how prevalent a problem it is, and too shallow or one-dimensional. Essentially we usually are just looking at one dimension of the problem, not the lived experience of how frequently these risk factors are compounded.)

It’s made me wonder — is there such a thing as a “poverty pyramid?” And is it possible to demonstrate who’s actually at the bottom of that pyramid, or on its descending rungs? It might help to be able to visualize who’s traditionally got it worst, across so many metrics, to deepen the conversation we ought to be having.

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Here’s my concept for a “below-poverty” pyramid, that takes into effect **some** of the elements of compound poverty, and generally tries to communicate the stair-stepping of disadvantage certain groups habitually face, whether at the local, regional, or in this case national level. It’s often the same pattern, and lots of sub-pyramids could be made as well, such as just for single parents, or children in poverty, etc.

So here’s what I’ve come up so far, based on verifiable statistics from reputable sources. If you’ve got revisions you’d suggest, and provable, reliable sources of information to back them up , please let me know. Or just rave about it on social media. It’s part of a whole series on “unpacking poverty” that started here.

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Focused on using data as a tool in research & policy decisions. IWMF grantee. NASW-TX and Tableau Public award winner. UTSA, Harvard honors grad. Ph.D. student.

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