Poor, Non-Working Black and Latino Men Are Nearly Non-Existent

Remember when Paul Ryan said this?

We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.

At the time, many called him out for racism, which was fair, since everyone knows "inner cities" means black people (and Latinos to a somewhat lesser extent). Personally, I found myself more eye-rolling at the whole thing than anything else. The statement made it clear that Paul Ryan is not serious about understanding poverty beyond a few stereotypes he has internalized throughout his life.

Ryan focuses on men, but it's women that make up the great majority of the poor. Ryan focuses on inner cities, but poverty has been moving out into the suburbs. Ryan focuses on people of color (through the "inner city" dogwhistle), but in fact whites make up the largest group of the nation's poor. Even at the most superficial analysis, it was clear Paul Ryan was not going to do anything more than repeat the same old stuff rich white people say among themselves about poverty.

Recently, I have made efforts to break down the impoverished in order to get a better sense of who they are. As part of that project, I figured I should actually try to pin down how many of the poor fall into the Paul Ryan category of non-working black and Latino men. I found that only 3.7% of all poor people are able-bodied, non-working black and Latino men, which is equal to 0.6% of the entire US population.

This number is derived in a fairly straightforward manner. You start by taking the 15% of people who are officially impoverished, and then clear out children, the elderly, the seriously disabled, students, and people with "earned" income. That leaves 21.1% of the poor remaining (or 3.2% of the US population). From there, you take that remaining group and you clear out women. That leaves 8% of the poor remaining (or 1.2% of the US population). From there, you just isolate the non-hispanic blacks and Latinos, and you've got it.

Able-bodied, non-working black men comprise 2% of all poor people and 0.3% of the entire US population. Able-bodied, non-working Latino men comprise 1.7% of all poor people and 0.26% of the entire US population. Thus, as I mentioned above, these two groups make up a combined 3.7% of all poor people and around 0.6% of the entire US population. (For comparison purposes, able-bodied, non-working white men make up 3.6% of all poor people and around 0.54% of the entire US population. So able-bodied, non-working white men are essentially as numerous as able-bodied, non-working black and Latino men combined).

Really let that soak in for a minute: at least 26 out of every 27 poor people in this country are not "inner city" men suffering from a culture of non-work. Even if we pretended for the sake of argument that this 3.7% of poor people were afflicted by a culture of non-work, it is still an extraordinarily small population among the poor and, even more so, among the population at large. Yet, the specter of them dominates the conservative understanding of what poverty in this country is all about. Needless to say, policies built upon such a massively incorrect understanding will not bear much worthwhile poverty-reduction fruit. But you can be sure that they'll keep on coming.

Addendum (Edit):

Two people have communicated to me that I might be getting this low number because I am misleadingly counting as people with any earnings as working. But this is not why the numbers are so low.

First, just to show I am not doing something totally novel and strange here, it deserves pointing out that this is exactly how Jared Bernstein (who is far more respected than I, to say the least) does these kinds of calculations. 

Second, the reason these numbers are so low is not that I am sneaking in a bunch of men who made $5 last year. It is because children, the elderly, the disabled, students, and women (CEDSW) make up the vast majority of poor people (83% by my count). Even when you take out the "non-working" adjective from above (meaning counting just poor black and Latino men, regardless of whether they are working or not), you still wind up with very low numbers:

  1. Poor non-CEDSW Black men: 0.5% of the overall population - 3.3% of the poor population
  2. Poor non-CEDSW Hispanic men: 0.77% of the overall population - 5.1% of the poor population
  3. Poor non-CEDSW White men: 1.1% of the overall population - 7% of the poor population
It is the clearing out of the CEDSW populations that makes these numbers so low, not trickery around how I tally up "working" people (which, to repeat point one, is not novel anyways).
 

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