"When you're white ... you don't know what it's like to be poor."

Bernie Sanders on Sunday, March 6th, 2016 in a Democratic debate in Flint, Mich.

Bernie Sanders wrong to say, 'When you're white ... you don't know what it's like to be poor'

Bernie Sanders took some heat for comments about poverty in the "ghetto" and whether most whites experience poverty.
Bernie Sanders squared off against Hillary Clinton in a debate in Flint, Mich., on March 6, 2016. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

During the Democratic debate in economically distressed and racially diverse Flint, Mich., CNN’s Don Lemon asked both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders the same question:

"In a speech about policing," Lemon said, "the FBI director, James Comey, borrowed a phrase saying, ‘Everyone is a little bit racist.’ What racial blind spot do you have?"

When it was Sanders’ turn to answer, he began by talking about several specific examples of racial discrimination. He then drew a contrast with what whites experience.  

"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. You don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you walk down the street or you get dragged out of a car," Sanders said.

Several readers asked us to take a closer look at Sanders’ comment that "when you're white ... you don't know what it's like to be poor."

Sanders' point was that white people haven’t had to contend with racism based on skin color. But when he moves into the subject of whites’ experience with poverty, he’s on weak ground. Sanders’ suggestion that white Americans haven’t experienced poverty is undercut by statistics calculated by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Since the 1960s, the Census Bureau has tracked the numbers and percentages of Americans by race who have an income level that puts them at the poverty line. Here’s the most recent data, for 2014:



Number in poverty

Poverty rate

Americans of all races

46.7 million

14.8 percent


19.7 million

10.1 percent


10.8 million

26.2 percent


13.1 million

23.6 percent


2.1 million

12.0 percent


By this measure, Sanders was certainly wrong to suggest that whites haven’t experienced poverty. In 2014, there were actually more white Americans in poverty -- 19.7 million -- than members of any other group.

Part of the reason, of course, is that there are more white Americans than there are members of minority groups overall. (Whites account for 62 percent of the population.) Still, even though whites have a lower poverty rate than other groups -- roughly 10 percent -- even that percentage is hardly trivial.

The numbers are similar if you raise the income level slightly. At 125 percent of the poverty level, the number of white Americans rises to about 26.5 million. That’s a lot of white people who are in or near poverty.

"This was a misstatement. A lot of white people know what it’s like to be poor," said Julia Isaacs, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.

If you look at the poor as a group, minorities are disproportionately represented. Still, the white population is large enough that the majority of the people in poverty are white. That’s been the case since at least 1970.

We calculated the racial and ethnic makeup of the population at the poverty line in roughly 10-year intervals, using data for the four categories above. Census data is available back to 1990 for all four groups, and they exist for all but Asians back to about 1970.



Percentage of people in poverty who were white

Percentage of people in poverty who were black

Percentage of people in poverty who were Hispanic

Percentage of people in poverty who were Asian
































* Data is for 1972

It’s easiest to grasp the scope of white poverty when using the following graphic, which was provided to us by Christopher Wimer, a research scientist at the Columbia University Population Research Center. It’s similar to the chart above, except that it uses a more precise, though still experimental, measurement of poverty that is adjusted for geography, government benefits and other factors not captured in the traditional poverty measurement.

The share of whites in the population of Americans in poverty is shown in purple. As the chart indicates, the white share has fallen, but it’s still the largest of any of the four groups studied.

Sanders said the day after the debate that he misspoke, telling reporters, "What I meant to say is when you talk about ghettos traditionally, what you talk about is African-American communities. There is nobody on this campaign … who's talked about poverty, whether it's in the white community, the black community, the Latino community, more than I have."

Our ruling

Sanders says that "when you're white ... you don't know what it's like to be poor." On the contrary -- the most recent figures show that nearly 20 million white Americans are experiencing poverty. While that’s smaller as a percentage than it is for other racial and ethnic groups, that’s still a lot of people. In raw numbers, it’s actually more than any other group. We rate his claim False.

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"When you're white ... you don't know what it's like to be poor."
In a Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan
Sunday, March 6, 2016

After the Fact

Meme claims to give 'full' Sanders quote, but actually omits key passage

Added on March 8, 2016, 10:26 a.m.

After we published our fact-check, many readers wrote us to say that we had misquoted what Sanders said during the debate. A number of these readers circulated a meme purporting to show that Sanders was simply quoting a Black Lives Matter activist, rather than stating his own opinion.

However, even though the meme says it offers the "full quote," it actually omits a crucial passage and stitches together two separate comments by Sanders. The end result is a distinctly misleading impression of what Sanders said.

Here is the meme:

But the meme provides an edited version of Sanders’ remarks. Here is the transcript of what Sanders said at the debate, with the part omitted by the meme in bold type. We relied on the transcript located here and verified it by reviewing video footage.

"I was with young people active in the Black Lives Matter movement. A young lady comes up to me and she says, you don’t understand what police do in certain black communities. You don’t understand the degree to which we are terrorized, and I’m not just talking about the horrible shootings that we have seen, which have got to end and we’ve got to hold police officers accountable, I’m just talking about everyday activities where police officers are bullying people. So to answer your question, I would say, and I think it’s similar to what the secretary 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. You don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you walk down the street or you get dragged out of a car. And I believe that as a nation in the year 2016, we must be firm in making it clear. We will end institutional racism and reform a broken criminal justice system."

The full transcript demonstrates that Sanders was not simply quoting a Black Lives Matter activist when he said, "When you're white ... you don't know what it's like to be poor." The part of his comments that were removed from the meme make clear that he was saying this on his own, in order to answer the moderator’s question. Our False rating stands.