The Geography of Black Poverty

In the following essay, Rev. Darvin Adams, Ph.D., provides a nuanced discussion of Black poverty in the United States. Dr. Adams’ essay traces both the historical and geographical contours of the development of these conditions, arguing that it follows from practices of white supremacy and a political refusal to acknowledge the ramifications of such racism. It is the responsibility of Black theologians and church leaders, Adams claims, to address this as a form of idolatry which should be honestly addressed and named. See Dr. Adams’ full bio below.

American Politics and the Geographical Nuance of Black Poverty

A Brief Overview of American Politics and Black Poverty

Having a proper perspective on the problem of Black poverty in the United States is critical to one's understanding of how this form of structural economic deterioration is a theological issue. Black poverty in the United States stems from an outgrowth of a system of idolatry, a system which represents the slavery chains of dehumanization, deprivation and oppression in the Black community.  What this means is that Black poverty is an interdisciplinary conversation within the study of Christian theology. Here, the conversation of poverty in the Black community must be taken seriously because it holds theological and intellectual currency in sacred institutions and secular environments, especially where the politics of past administrations are concerned.

Theologian J. Deotis Roberts recalls that, “A black aide of President Nixon visited a large church body in session in the heart of Alabama. He criticized the blacks [sic] for severely hating and killing each other. He took them to task for their shortcomings. But he did not delve into the deep economic, familial, and social roots of black misery that can be traced to white racism. He indicted us for being on our knees, but he did not tell the white oppressor, especially his own ‘boss,’ to get off our necks. This society is seriously ill and white racism is one of its deadly diseases. We cannot simply treat symptoms; we must get to the root causes.”[1] For Roberts, white racism, as it is ensconced in the practice of certain white political ideologies and policies, has been the root cause of Black poverty in the United States. In order for treat the symptoms of Black poverty, one must first be open and honest about the racist treatment of Black folk on American soil and the material consequences of such racist political and economic histories.

Former House Speaker Paul Ryan. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Former House Speaker Paul Ryan. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

In his article, “The Politics of Poverty and Race”, Jamil Drake responds to a particularly illuminating statement made by former House Representative and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan's (R-Wisconsin). Ryan identified “single, female-headed household[s] crowded with illegitimate children” as the primary cause of Black intergenerational poverty.”[2] Drake responded to this assertion with a particularly cogent analysis of the deficiencies of Ryan’s thought, which represents a larger type of racist erasure of the history of anti-Black racism in the U.S. The quotation shall be given at length:

Ryan’s rumination on the broken family and dependency is a footnote to the larger discourse of the urban black underclass that resurfaced during the Reagan administration. The problems with dependency and the female-headed household were popularized in the 1976 Republican primary, when then-California Governor Ronald Reagan told audiences the story of a lascivious, lazy, and criminally minded, Cadillac-driving   “Welfare Queen,” who abused the system in deindustrialized Chicago. Although Reagan lost a close race to Gerald Ford, his attack on the war on poverty provided the intellectual foundations for a theoretical shift in the poverty debates from wage distribution and federal policies to cultural and behavioral patterns.

The “Welfare Queen” speech showed that urban blacks were easy targets (or villains!) to support Cold War-era, free-market values and to rail against the welfare state and civil rights legislation. Although Reagan’s welfare queen was an isolated case and an exaggerated tale, it did not matter. That symbol prompted pundits to legitimate urban black cultural deficiencies—single-parent households, teenage pregnancy, laziness, drug addictions, and high-school dropouts—through pseudo-scientific and arbitrary statistics, graphs, and I.Q. testing.

During the Reagan Revolution, the black underclass was transformed into a purely cultural category designed to delineate a set of urban behaviors that were deemed pathological or deficient, according to historian Alice O’Connor in her volume, Poverty-Knowledge. In 1986, liberal journalist Nicholas Lemann wondered in The Atlantic how the bifurcation of the middle and lower class in Black America continued, even “during a period of relative prosperity and of national commitment to black progress.”

His answer? “In the ghettos … it appears that the distinctive culture is now the greatest barrier to progress by the black underclass, rather than either   unemployment or welfare.” In essence, Lemann was saying that economic policies paled in the face of an overpowering culture that confined the black underclass to a life of destruction. Although Lemann’s analysis of the black underclass sought to transcend either a Republican or Democratic solution, his attention to the negative power of culture definitely fueled neoconservatives’ cultural deficit   hypothesis.

In the 2012 Republican primaries, the rhetoric around government handouts and the criticism of Barack Obama as the “food-stamp president” underscored how American politics was and is still deeply wedded to the discourse around the “Welfare Queen” and the black underclass of the late 1970s and 80s. Democrats have not been immune either. The Clinton administration’s welfare reforms of the 1990s dismantled many programs, and made cash benefits to poor families temporary and contingent on finding employment. The cultural deficiency hypothesis—the idea that deficits in black culture keep black Americans in poverty—continues to frame the discussion of poverty in American politics.[3]

Drake's poignant analysis underscores the fact that white politicians in the United States refuse to say much at all about poverty in the Black communities that doesn’t also lay the blame at their own feet. Because of the theoretical shift from economic policy (wage distribution) and political policy (wage increase) to cultural and behavioral patterns in the everyday life of Black folk, politicians avoid conversations about how racism and capitalism negatively impact the social, political and economic life of Black Americans. Instead, they attempt to justify the growing poverty among Black Americans by critiquing the “moral” weaknesses of the Black community. Instead of citing the American culture of racial discrimination and economic exploitation, most politicians will blame the behavioral practices of Black culture for the poverty of Black Americans.

When I asked Kentucky State Representative Jeff Taylor the question of why politicians say very little about poverty in the Black communities of the United States, he stated that, “They don't have to. Their argument is that Black people themselves...what they do on a day to day basis….is what keeps them poor and existing - not living - but existing inside their impoverished neighborhoods.”[4] Along the same lines, Thomas Sowell's book, Wealth, Poverty and Politics: An International Perspective[5], argues that the main reason why Black people are poor is because they “do not or will not produce”[6]. Sowell's analysis is, for the most part, behavioral in that he refuses to look beyond Black culture for the purpose of recognizing how American culture has conditioned Black folk into a life of structural poverty and other forms of human oppression.

 On the surface, I agree with Michael Leo Owens, author of God and Government in the Ghetto, when he states, “Defining urban poverty in terms of moral values and behaviors and proposing faith-based and community initiatives as a policy solution may lay the groundwork for fiscal reductions in government programs for the poor.”[7] I say that because President Trump's new budget calls for cuts into programs that would not benefit the poor. From healthcare and food stamps to tax cuts, student loans and disability payments, the implication of this budget proposal will make life more difficult for those Black Americans who already exist in poverty. In presenting a strict blueprint for reordering the nation’s priorities, President Trump's demand for money to fund nuclear weaponry for a potential war and the border wall has been enacted with economic priority.

Knowing that poor Black and Latino communities would fall into deeper poverty amidst his budgetary negotiations, one political analyst, Julie Hirschfeld Davis, notes that “many Republicans are deeply conflicted over voting for a health care overhaul measure that included the Medicaid cuts contained in the new budget. Now the president is proposing still deeper reductions to the federal health program for the poor, as well as drastically scaling back a broad array of social safety net programs that are certain to be unpopular with lawmakers.”[8] All cuts that are earmarked in the new budget negatively affects the livelihood of poor Black folk in some shape or form.

Well before the implementation of various healthcare provisions and tax cuts for the wealthy, Trump's policies would have already made America's poor communities even poorer. The new tax cuts will not only benefit the wealthy by enabling them to pay less taxes on larger incomes, but they will also force a percentage of the middle class and the entire lower class of poor Black folk to pay more taxes on smaller incomes. Provisions in both healthcare and tax cuts represent economic consequences for the Black poor.

Photo by Andrea Morales

Photo by Andrea Morales

Trump's budget proposes cuts on many existing programs that benefit disadvantaged Black youth, including food stamps, student loan access, and federal work-study opportunities. In his attempts to repeal and replace President Obama's healthcare program, Trump is making it difficult for poor Black people to afford adequate health insurance. With the understanding that a sizable amount of Black Americans live in poverty, President Trump intentionally criticizes the schools and neighborhoods which Black folk attend and reside.             

According to Jaweed Kaleem and Ann M. Simmons of the Los Angeles Times, “President Trump looked out at the crowd of supporters at a rally in Ohio last month and ticked off the troubles he said plague black America: “The violence. The death. The lack of education. No jobs.” This, he said pointing in the imagined direction of an inner-city “ghetto,” is a place where “you buy a loaf of bread and end up getting shot.” Essentially, he said, African Americans are “living in hell.””[9] In both fear and approval, Trump uses the term “poor” to describe the economic condition of Black people. He also understands how the term “poor” symbolizes the low quality of life that Black Americans have been forced to live. Trump is very much aware of the fact that almost half of all Black children in the United States live in abject poverty.

As he is a few percentage points off in terms of giving the exact number of Black Americans who live below the poverty line, Trump's social, political and economic vision for Black folk could very well increase the number of Black people who live in deep poverty. Black poverty is a theological issue because it stems from an outgrowth of a system of idolatry that denies the integrity of all life, including Black life, and prioritizes wealth and the accrual of privilege for a certain privileged segment of society. This form of structural evil causes Black people unnecessary harm. Because American politics lie at the center of Black social, political and economic suffering, Black Theology in the United States must operate with an educational, social, political and economic bent that moves toward the arc of justice and liberation.

The Geography of Black Poverty

One-sided political ideologies in the United States play a major role in determining where the poverty of Black folk exists. Geographically, the poor exist in every region of the United States. But much like the geographical landscape of America itself, poor communities are largely segregated by color. Large pockets of poor Black folk remain concentrated in the old slaving-holding states of the Jim Crow South. As the poorest states in the wealthy United States of America, Louisiana and Mississippi represent poverty-stricken regions that are filled with poor Black folk and relatively high unemployment percentages.

Speaking to the poverty that defines the existence of a sizable amount of Black people in the South, Carlos Ballesteros affirms in his article, “Alabama Has The Worst Poverty In The Developed World, U.N. Official Says,” that, “Economic inequality and racial discrimination have also been linked with civil rights abuses, particularly in Alabama and other states across the South.”[10] While millions of Black Americans and other minorities are deprived of economic resources, members of the U.N. are considering poverty in the United States as a civil and human rights issue. Most politicians have washed their hands clean of addressing poverty and the problems that come along with being economically poor.

Despite these concerns, the Republican Party, which controls all three branches of the federal government, is on course to pass a tax bill before the end of the year that will increase the federal deficit by $1 trillion in 10 years—costs that GOP leaders have said will be offset by reducing an already-weakened social safety net. These political decisions are at the root of systemic poverty in the United States.[11]

These political decisions create more poverty among the Black middle class and the Black working class; all the while pushing the Black poor into deeper poverty.

Poor people also reside on the trail of the Great Migration from the South to industrialized cities in the North and Midwest, like Cleveland, Toledo, Chicago, Flint and Detroit. Many of the Black poor are concentrated in the impoverished Black ghettos and poverty-stricken Black communities of this geographic region. In these downtrodden neighborhoods, the Black poor find no equanimity, trading the physical violence of lynching and racial discrimination for indecent housing and one-sided policies that leave them vulnerable to educational, social, political and economic predators.

Photo by Delvin Yalkin / NYT

Photo by Delvin Yalkin / NYT

In her article, “Residential Housing after the Fair Housing Act”, Natasha M. Trifun argues that, “The formal barriers to residential integration have been lifted, but many African Americans still face limited housing choices, and live in poor neighborhoods that lack the infrastructure, and environmental safety, of nearby affluent neighborhoods. Residential segregation also deprives communities of color from receiving equal access to quality education, employment, homeownership, and wealth accumulation.”[12] For Trifun, the practice of housing discrimination in the United States is founded in the socioeconomic dilemma of Black poverty. Furthermore, Trifun states, “By limiting African Americans to poorer neighborhoods, residential segregation has the practical effect of excluding African Americans from access to better public resources, such as schools.”[13] Being vulnerable to educational, social, political and economic predators has rendered Black Americans as both survivors and victims.

Similarly, Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton argue in their book, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, that Black poverty in the United States is linked to the massive lumping of Black people into impoverished ghettos. Here, the materialization of white resentment in the first half of the twentieth century led to residential segregation in many parts of the country. Massey and Denton's analysis sheds light on the fact that the Black ghetto was created by white folk for the purpose of isolating poor Black populations.

Massey and Denton's analysis proves that the Fair Housing Act of 1968 did not hinder the growing racism of residential segregation in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The systematic segregation of Black Americans gives intentional reasoning for the creation of Black underclass communities, especially during periods of lower rates of economic growth. Under the order of racial segregation, any upswing in the number of Black folk who live in poverty gives way to a noticeable increase in the geographic decline of social, political and economic conditions in Black communities.

As a form of racial discrimination, residential segregation within Black urban neighborhoods gave credence to the economic underdevelopment of Black America. The racist practice of residential segregation gave way to the economic forms of late capitalism. White policy-makers, it seems, felt that as long as poor Black folk were lumped together in residential areas there was no need to provide economic resources for the development of their communities. One can especially see here how the pivot to blaming the poverty of Black communities on supposed moral flaws could give ample coverage to political agendas bent on stripping support services for impoverished Black communities. Similar to Roberts and Trifun, Massey and Denton understand the role that white resentment has played in the impoverishment of Black folk in the United States. Unsurprisingly, Elizabeth Oltmans Ananat's 2011 study on the effects of racial segregation on Black poverty and inequality found that one's residential segregation drastically increased rates of Black poverty and overall Black-white income disparities.[14]

What Can We Do?

With the Black poor spread out across the various regions of the United States, an opportunity exists for Black theologians to address the growing epidemic of poverty in the Black community. With the particularity of white hegemony in mind, J. Deotis Roberts writes that, “In the land of the free and the home of the brave, we are called upon as black theologians to speak out of the sufferings and experiences of oppression of Black Americans for whom the promise of ‘freedom and justice for all’ has not been kept.”[15] Recognizing that poverty is not only present in Black communities, and that other communities of color have been negatively affected by white racism, Roberts suggests that Black theologians “should encourage [other oppressed communities] to speak for themselves, loud and clear, until they are heard. They alone know the depths of their sufferings and their hunger for liberation.”[16]

Photo by Delvin Yalkin / NYT

Photo by Delvin Yalkin / NYT

For the Black theologian, the primary goal of addressing Black poverty in the United States is to reduce the number of Black folk who suffer from the perils of economic deprivation. While it safe to assume that there are poor Black Americans residing in each of the fifty states, there should be a strategic effort to reduce this number. In their book, The Geography of American Poverty: Is There A Need for Place-based Policies?, Mark Partridge and Dan Rickman argue that place-based policies that are working in certain areas and regions of the country should be utilized in the places where poverty is growing the most. In considering why antipoverty policies have done well in a few places and failed in many others, Partridge and Rickman come to the conclusion that all place-based policies, poverty programs and governmental initiatives must be created for the purpose of reducing the number of people who live below the poverty line. Policies need to be oriented toward specific contexts as much as possible, rather than assuming a one-sized fits all approach.

 In summary, Partridge and Rickman proclaim that,

Reducing poverty can provide substantial benefits in many ways: improved social engagement, higher economic potential, greater long-term earnings for positively affected individuals, lower crime, and significant long-term gains for affected children in terms of health, education, and income in adulthood. Associated gains include eventual reductions in governmental expenditures for public assistance, health care, and the criminal justice system. Along with even modest concerns for equity and fairness, these advantages provide continued justification for aggressively fighting poverty. And the potential gains are likely greatest where poverty is geographically most concentrated.[17]

It bears repeating that Black poverty in the United States stems from an outgrowth of an oppressive and violent system of idolatry. This system of idolatry is rooted in the slavery chains of previous centuries and the antics of Jim and Jane Crow that severely curtailed the generational wealth and life chances of Black communities well into the late 20th century, and still continues into the 21st. As the political ideologies within white racism continue to perpetuate an economic hegemony over Black Americans, politics and geography work together for the oppression of many people of color. In other words, there is a connection between what American politicians think about poverty in the Black community and the geographical nuances of where Black poverty actually exists. When the materialization of poverty is visibly in place, racism normally plays the role of the mesmerizing interlocutor that seeks to not adequately or truthfully address the root causes of these conditions. This is the working of idolatry - the masking of evil in the name of some supposed greater good/God.

[1]     J. Deotis Roberts, A Black Political Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 135-136.

[2]     Jamil Drake, “The Politics of Poverty and Race” Religion & Politics, January 20, 2015.

[3]     Ibid.

[4]     A sit down conversation with State Representative Jeff Taylor on December 12, 2017 in Hopkinsville, Kentucky.

[5]     Thomas Sowell Wealth, Poverty and Politics: An International Perspective (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2015).

[6]     Steven Pearlstein, “Here's why poor people are poor, says a conservative black academic.” The Washington Post, September 4, 2015.

[7]     Michael Leo Owens, God and Government in the Ghetto: The Politics of Church-State Collaboration in Black America (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), 30.

[8]     Julie Hirschfeld Davis, “Trump's Budget Cuts Deeply Into Medicaid and Anti-Poverty Efforts”, The New York Times, May 22, 2017.

[9]     Jaweed Kaleem and Ann M. Simmons, “Trump says African Americans are living in hell. That depends on what you means by hell.” The Los Angeles Times, November 5, 2016.

[10]   Carlos Ballesteros, “Alabama Has The Worst Poverty In The Developed World, U.N. Official Says” Newsweek, December 10, 2017.

[11]   Ibid.

[12]   Natasha M. Trifun, “Residential Housing after the Fair Housing Act”, Human Rights Magazine; Volume 36 No. 4, Fall 2009.

[13]   Ibid.

[14]   Elizabeth O. Ananat, “The Wrong Side(s) of the Tracks: The Casual Effects of Racial Segregation on Urban Poverty and Inequality” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, vol. 3, no. 2 April 2011,  36-66.

[15]   J. Deotis Roberts, A Black Political Theology, 16.

[16]   Ibid.

[17]   Mark D. Partridge and Dan S. Rickman, The Geography of American Poverty: Is There A Need for Place-based Policies? Kalamazoo, MI: W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, 2006), 4-5.


The Reverend Doctor Darvin A. Adams I completed his Ph.D. in Theology and Ethics at the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

A native of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, Dr. Adams is a pastor in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church tradition and an elected city councilman in Hopkinsville (Ward 1).

His research interests are Contemporary Theology, Black Theology (first-generation) and Poverty, John Wesley and the Poor, Pneumatology, Black Culture, Black Religion, Slavery, Marxism and Late Capitalism, and Poetry.