Saturday, February 7, 2015

Race, Poverty, and Perception

A few weeks ago, Amitai Etzioni had an article entitled "The Left's Unpopular Populism."  It was mostly just a collection of "New Democrat" (new as of circa 1985) bromides, but one of his remarks caught my eye "the public views [the poor] as including mainly minorities."  That's true, or at least probably true:  a Los Angeles Times survey from 1985 asked people what percentage of poor people were black:  the median was about 40%.  A number of surveys between 1982 and 2000 asked "Of all the people who are poor in this country, are more of them black or are more of them white?"  In the latest one, 42% said more are black, 18% said more are white, 21% said about equal, and 19% didn't know.  In fact, only about 23% of the poor are black, 42% are non-Hispanic whites, 28% are Hispanic, and 8% are other races.

So people definitely tend to overestimate the percentage of the poor who are black (there's little information on perceptions of Hispanics).  But they also estimate the percentage of the whole population that is black.  Several Gallup polls have asked what percentage of the American population is black, and the median is about 35%.

If you take the figures at face value and do the calculations, it turns out that people generally underestimate the association between race and poverty.  I wouldn't take the exact numbers that seriously,  but I think it is fair to say that, on the average, people have a pretty accurate view of the relationship:  they realize that the poverty rate is higher among blacks, but don't imagine that poverty is just a black problem.

The natural follow-up question is whether it matters:  from the context, it's clear that Etzioni is suggesting that whites who think that more of the poor are black are less likely to support anti-poverty programs.  My next post will look at whether that is the case.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

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