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Commentary: The demographics of poverty

Frederick Douglass, one of America’s great thinkers, in the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” told a story of how he became educated enough to not only escape the actual bonds of slavery, but the mental ones as well.

Part of his youth was spent with a slave owner who provided a fair amount of food to his slaves. Douglass would sneak off with some of the leftovers and meet up with a few of the poor, white boys in the area.

He’d give them food. In return, they helped him learn how to read.

It was a seemingly strange alliance, this black slave banding together with poor white boys.

But it was a powerful one. Had such alliances become the norm during that period, it would have changed the course of history. Because each side had something the other needed, together each side would become more whole and better able to express the full humanity with which they were born, despite the chains and whips, despite the hunger pangs.

Fast forward a couple of centuries. We’ve finally reached a much-anticipated tipping point in this country. Minority babies outnumber white babies, a demographic shift that is expected to result in the 18-and-under white population becoming a minority within a dozen years. That reality is expected to take hold throughout the United States by mid-century. (Also, according to the 2010 census, Hispanics outnumbered blacks in the city of Myrtle Beach.)

Whites will no longer be the majority, just the largest minority group.

That has lead to all sorts of handwringing and contemplation about what it will mean, about how this forever changes our country, about the need to prepare ourselves for a new world.

The emerging demographics will affect our political and educational lives for generations. It will force us to rethink and re-imagine policies that have been geared towards helping minorities overcome a difficult past.

It will challenge and redefine norms and could be disconcerting to some because no matter if it is positive or negative, change is uncertain, which generates anxiety.

But as is typical in many discussions about this topic, the lives and futures of poor whites are seldom seriously contemplated because of the mistaken notion that skin color automatically denotes privilege.

It does not.

While much was made of the finding that 92 percent of black students qualify for subsidized meals in Horry County Schools, more than half of white students are also eligible.

And while we frequently talk about closing the achievement gap between blacks and whites, the gap is just as wide, and often wider, between those who grow up in financially-sound homes as those who don’t.

Almost 20 percent of residents in Horry County live below the poverty line – and not nearly all of them are minorities.

What’s worse is that research out of Princeton University showed that minorities who lived in poverty and had to overcome hardships, their chances of getting into a top university increased – while it was just the opposite for poor whites.

As we digest the emerging demographics, much will be said about whether or not whites will be overly afraid of such changes.

This much I know. Poor whites have legitimate reason to be concerned. They’ve been allowed to fall between the cracks in ways other suffering groups have not, even if a perfect remedy for what ails any of them has yet to be discovered.

People with connections, steady resources and blessed with stable homes and environments tend to get along well in just about every situation. They may suffer painful setbacks, like millions of Americans have in the aftermath of the financial meltdown that resulted in the worst economy since the Great Depression. But those are usually temporary in nature and nothing like the generational poverty experienced by too many in this country.

The people who are less fortunate – be they white, black, Latino or Asian American – should receive most of our attention.

Like Douglass, we better figure out what they have that can help the rest of us, and what we have that can help them.

If we don’t, there’s no other way this country will be able to live up to its lofty ideals and principles.