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"When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be poor," reads the text of a May 6 Facebook post featuring photos that show impoverished tableaus and a photo of Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The quote is close to something Sanders said: "When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor."
We fact-checked the abbreviated quoted in 2016, and Sanders got it wrong — we rated it False. But we were drawn to a statistic at the bottom of the Facebook post.
"Fact," it says, "70% of Americans in poverty are white. Stop dividing us. Stop pitting us against each other."
This post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
We reached out to Poverty Solutions, an initiative at the University of Michigan aimed at preventing and alleviating poverty, for insight about the Facebook post statistic.
Natalie Peterson, a data and evaluation associate, pointed us to the most recent official poverty report from the U.S. Census Bureau. Income and Poverty in the United States was released September 2018 and reports on data for 2017.
According to the report, nearly 39.7 million people were living in poverty in the United States in 2017. Of that group, 17 million were non-Hispanic whites. That means that non-Hispanic whites accounted for 42% of all people living in poverty.
She also pointed us to the Supplemental Poverty Measure for 2017. This is a broader measure of poverty in the United States, Peterson said. It includes people living together who aren’t related, including unmarried partners, and it has a wider definition of what qualifies as income, including non-cash public benefits like food stamps and Medicaid.
By that measure, there were nearly 45 million people living in poverty in the United States in 2017. Of that group, 19 million were non-Hispanic white. That means that non-Hispanic whites accounted for 43% of people living in poverty under the supplemental poverty measure.
Next, we asked Peterson about a 2012 Census Bureau presentation slide we found as we were searching around for evidence that 70% of people in poverty are white. The slide is titled: "Are most people in poverty white?" According to the slide, which looks at data from 1960-2011, 31.7 million whites were living in poverty at the end of the time period being studied. That’s compared to 14.5 million non-whites. That would mean that about 69 percent of those living in poverty then were white.
But Peterson noticed a caveat: "White," in this case, includes Hispanics who identify their race as white. Looking at historical data in the official poverty report, in 2011, 46.2 million people of all races were in poverty. Of that group, 67% of the all people living in poverty were "white alone." But looking at "white alone, not Hispanic," the percentage dropped to 41% living in poverty.
In 2017, among the 39.7 million people living in poverty, 26.4 million were "white alone," or about 66%, while those who were "white alone, not Hispanic" was 42%.
The Facebook post claims that 70% of Americans in poverty are white. Including people of Hispanic origin, that’s close: In 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, 66% of people living in poverty were white, including people of Hispanic origin.
But that number drops to 42% — under the official poverty measure — when people of Hispanic origin are omitted. This Facebook post, published by a Facebook account called "Fed Up Deplorables," shows people with fair skin in what look like seemingly poor, rural settings.
And then there’s the quote from Bernie Sanders, which Sanders made in response to a 2016 debate question from CNN’s Don Lemon about "racial blind spots." His answer distinguished white Americans from people of color.
So, while there are context clues that suggest this post is meant to give the impression that 70% of people who live in poverty are not people of color, a strict reading of the claim leaves enough wiggle room that we can’t discount the fact that demographers sometimes use the word "white" to include those who describe themselves as being Hispanic.
Because it depends on whether "white" includes those who are Hispanic or not, we rate the Facebook claim that white people account for 70% of Americans living in poverty Half True.
Facebook post, May 6, 2019
PolitiFact, "Bernie Sanders wrong to say, ‘When you’re white … you don’t know what it’s like to be poor,’" March 7, 2016
The Washington Post, "13 million people in poverty are disconnected from the social safety net. Most of them are white," Feb. 4, 2019
The Washington Post, "Bernie Sanders says white people don’t know what it’s like to live in a ‘ghetto.’ About that…" March 7, 2016
Politico, "PolitiFact dings Sanders for saying white people don’t know poverty," March 7, 2016
U.S. Census Bureau, Income and poverty in the United States: 2017, September 2018
U.S. Census Bureau, The Supplemental Poverty Measure: 2017, September 2018
U.S. Census Bureau, Are most people in poverty non-white?, 2012
Email interview with Natalie Peterson, Data Evaluations Associate, Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan, May 15, 2019
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