Food stamps in black and white

A New York Times interactive map (and an accompanying story) on food stamp usage in the country provides an interesting — and sobering — assessment of the program that feeds the hungry. One in 8 Americans and 1 in 4 children in the country are on food stamps now.

But the opportunity for a further review of racial and ethnic disparities in matters of poverty is lost with the Times’ view that there are only definitions — whites and blacks. That might work in much of the country, but it may not work well to explain things in the Upper Midwest.

In Minnesota, for example, two counties are the heaviest users of food stamps — Beltrami and Mahnomen. In Beltrami County, 36% of “blacks” are on food stamps. But African Americans make up only .36% of the Beltrami County population. The largest non-white group is Native Americans.

In South Dakota, Shannon County has the highest rate of food stamp usage in the country (49%). Shannon County resides entirely within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

In North Dakota, 45 percent of all people in Sioux County are on food stamps, as are 63% of the children there. According to the Times data, 7% of the county’s whites are on food stamps, 0% of the county’s “blacks” are on food stamps. How is that possible? The county lies entirely within the the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, and it’s pretty clear that the Times wasn’t interested in categorizing the majority populations in this section of the country.

That’s a shame, because the U.S. Department of Agriculture changed the ethnic definitions a few years ago precisely so that it can be analyzed this way. The current definitions are:

* American Indian or Alaskan Native

* Asian

* Black or African-American

* Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander

* White

* American Indian or Alaska Native and White

* Asian and White

* Black or African American and White

* American Indian or Alaska Native and Black or African-American

  • Kassie

    Another item of interest is their is no data on the Hispanic/Latino population. Latino is an ethnicity that goes along with race. A person who identifies as Latino must also choose a race also. Some choose white, some black, some native. Most are a mixture of them all. This will throw off your race numbers greatly in areas like South Texas.

    Also, if a person applying chooses to not mark a race, it is up to the worker to choose a race for them based on what they believe is the best choice. That can screw things up too.

    And Somalis, in my experience, sometimes have a difficult time with choosing their race. I had clients tell me that a) they are not black, they are brown and b) they are not African-Americans, they are Africans and/or Somali. So what should they mark? I always told them to mark whatever they wanted.

  • Kim E

    This is a really confusing decision on the Times’s part. Were they trying to measure White or Person of Color (any color), or did they really not understand that there are other races other than Black/African-American? Yes, African-Americans are usually the largest minority group, but not in all states and counties (Beltrami and Mahnomen, for example).

    Kassie: On some race reporting forms, I have seen a category for “African-born” in addition to “Black/African-American,” but this seems to be falling out of style.