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