Race Still Matters

The Relationship Between Racial and Poverty Attitudes Among Social Work Students


  • Monique Constance-Huggins Winthrop University
  • Ashley Davis
  • Jessica Yang




color-blindness; race; poverty; attitudes; social work education


The attitudes that social work students hold about race and poverty impact the effectiveness of their practice in the field. This study assessed color-blind racial attitudes and attitudes towards poverty of graduating BSW students (n=41) and MSW students (n=128) from three accredited social work programs. Results indicate a correlation between color-blind racial attitudes and attitudes toward poverty for BSW students, but not MSW students. BSW students had fewer color-blind racial attitudes and more favorable attitudes toward poverty than MSW students. Several predictors of their attitudes were found: their educational status, personal experience of poverty, political ideology, and type of diversity course taken. Implications include the need to approach diversity education from an anti-oppression approach.


Abrams, L. S., & Gibson, P. (2007). Reframing multicultural education: Teaching white privilege in the social work curriculum. Journal of Social Work Education, 43(1), 147-160. https://doi.org/10.5175/jswe.2007.200500529

Abrams, L. S., & Moio, J. A. (2009). Critical race theory and the cultural competence dilemma in social work education. Journal of Social Work Education, 45(2), 245-262. https://doi.org/10.5175/jswe.2009.200700109

Alimo, C. J. (2012). From dialogue to action: The impact of cross-race intergroup dialogue on the development of white college students as racial allies. Equity & Excellence in Education, 45(1), 36-59. https://doi.org/10.1080/10665684.2012.643182

Black, J., & Veenstra, G. (2011). A cross-country quantitative approach to intersectionality and health: Using the neighborhood to predict self-rated health in Toronto and New York City. In O. Hankivsky, S. de Leeuw, J. Lee, B. Vissandjee, & N. Khanlou (Eds.), Health inequities in Canada: Intersectional frameworks and practices (pp. 71-91). Vancouver, CA: UBC Press.

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2006). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. https://doi.org/10.2307/40264552

Bray, S., & Balkin, R. S. (2013). Master's-level students’ beliefs concerning the causes of poverty, implicit racial attitudes, and multicultural competency. Journal of Professional Counseling: Practice, Theory & Research, 40(2), 33-44. https://doi.org/10.1080/15566382.2013.12033926

Burkard, A. W., & Knox, S. (2004). Effect of therapist color-blindness on empathy and attributions in cross-cultural counseling. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 51(4), 387-397. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0167.51.4.387

Caiola, C., Docherty, S., Relf, M., & Barroso, J. (2014). Using an intersectional approach to study the impact of social determinants of health for African-American mothers living with HIV. Advances in Nursing Science, 37(4), 287-298. https://doi.org/10.1097/ans.0000000000000046

Carlson, J. (2016). Child welfare workers’ constructions and causal explanations of poverty. Journal of Children and Poverty, 22(1), 41-56. https://doi.org/10.1080/10796126.2015.1130124

Castillo, J. T., & Becerra, D. (2012). The perception of poverty and social welfare policies among undergraduate and graduate social work students in the United States. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 22(4), 375-391. https://doi.org/10.1080/10911359.2012.664499

Clark, S. (2007). Social work students' perceptions of poverty. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 16(1-2), 149-166. https://doi.org/10.1300/j137v16n01_10

Collins, P. H., & Bilge, S. (2016). Intersectionality. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Council on Social Work Education. (2015). Educational policy and accreditation standards. Alexandria, VA: Author.

Davis, A. (2019). Historical knowledge of oppression and racial attitudes of social work students. Journal of Social Work Education, 55(1), 160-175. https://doi.org/10.1080/10437797.2018.1498419

Davis, A., Mirick, R., & McQueen, B. (2015). Teaching from privilege: Reflections from white female instructors. Affilia, 30(3), 302-313. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886109914560742

Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2017). Critical race theory: An introduction (2nd ed.). NY: NYU Press.

Dessel, A., Rogge, M. E., & Garlington, S. B. (2006). Using intergroup dialogue to promote social justice and change. Social Work, 51(4), 303-315. https://doi.org/10.1093/sw/51.4.303

Eligon, J. (2018, November 13). Hate crimes increase for third consecutive year, F.B.I. reports. New York Times, A21.

Feagin, J. R. (1972). Poverty: We still believe that God helps those who help themselves. Psychology Today, 6(6), 101-110.

FitzGerald, C., & Hurst, S. (2017). Implicit bias in healthcare professionals: A systematic review. BMC Medical Ethics, 18(1), 19. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12910-017-0179-8

Furnham, A. (2003). Belief in a just world: Research progress over the past decade. Personality and Individual Differences, 34(5), 795-817. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0191-8869(02)00072-7

Gentlewarrior, S., Martin-Jearld, A., Skok, A., & Sweetser, K. (2008). Culturally competent feminist social work: Listening to diverse people. Affilia, 23(3), 210-222. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886109908319117

Griffin, W. E., & Oheneba-Sakyi, Y. (1993). Sociodemographic and political correlates of university students’ causal attributions for poverty. Psychological Reports, 73(3), 795-800. https://doi.org/10.2466/pr0.1993.73.3.795

Heron, G. (2004). Evidencing anti-racism in student assignments: Where has all the racism gone? Qualitative Social Work, 3(3), 277-295. https://doi.org/10.1177/1473325004045666

Hill, K. M., Toft, J. E., Garrett, K. J., Ferguson, S. M., & Kuechler, C. F. (2016). Assessing clinical MSW students’ attitudes, attributions, and responses to poverty. Journal of Poverty, 20(4), 396-416. https://doi.org/10.1080/10875549.2015.1105345

Hudgins, C. A. (2015). The impact of diversity courses on student attitudes toward sexual orientation and racial diversity (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.

Kolivoski, K., Weaver, A., & Constance-Huggins, M. (2014). Critical race theory: Opportunities for application in social work practice and policy. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, 95(4), 269-276. https://doi.org/10.1606/1044-3894.2014.95.36

Krumer-Nevo, M., Weiss-Gal, I., & Monnickendam, M. (2009). Poverty-aware social work practice: A conceptual framework for social work education. Journal of Social Work Education, 45(2), 225-243. https://doi.org/10.5175/jswe.2009.200600144

La Fleur, N. K., Leach, M. M., & Rowe, W. (2002). Oklahoma Racial Attitudes Scale. Unpublished manual.

Lerner, M. (1980). The belief in a just world: A fundamental delusion. New York: Plenum.

Loya, M. (2011). Color-blind racial attitudes in white social workers: A cross-sectional study. Smith College Studies in Social Work, 81(2-3), 201-217. https://doi.org/10.1080/00377317.2011.589341

Loya, M. (2012). Racial attitudes in White social workers: Implications for culturally sensitive practice. Politics, Bureaucracy & Justice, 3(1), 23-31. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00377317.2011.589341

Milner, H. R. (2013). Analyzing poverty, learning, and teaching through a critical race theory lens. Review of Research in Education, 37, 1-53. https://doi.org/10.3102/0091732x12459720

Mizrahi, T., & Dodd, S. J. (2013). MSW students' perspectives on social work goals and social activism before and after completing graduate education. Journal of Social Work Education, 49(4), 580-600. https://doi.org/10.1080/10437797.2013.812504

Morelli, P. T. T., & Spencer, M. S. (2000). Use and support of multicultural and antiracist education: Research-informed interdisciplinary social work practice. Social Work, 45(2), 166-175. https://doi.org/10.1093/sw/45.2.166

National Association of Social Workers. (2017). Code of ethics. https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English

Neville, H. A., Poteat, V. P., Lewis, J. A., & Spanierman, L. B. (2014). Changes in White college students’ color-blind racial ideology over 4 years: Do diversity experiences make a differenceJournal of Counseling Psychology, 61(2), 179-190. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035168

Neville, H. A., Spanierman, L. B., & Doan, B. T. (2006). Exploring the association between color-blind racial ideology and multicultural counseling competencies. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 12, 275-290. https://doi.org/10.1037/1099-9809.12.2.275

Neville, H., Lilly, R., Lee, R., Duran, G., & Browne, L. (2000). Construction and initial validation of the Color-Blind Racial Attitude Scale. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 47(1), 59-70. https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-0167.47.1.59

Ortiz, L., & Jani, J. (2010). Critical race theory: A transformational model for teaching diversity. Journal of Social Work Education, 46 (2), 175-193. https://doi.org/10.5175/jswe.2010.200900070

Pew Research Center. (2016, June 27). On views of race and inequality, Black and Whites are worlds apart. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2016/06/27/on-views-of-race-and-inequality-blacks-and-whites-are-worlds-apart/

Rank, M. (2006). Toward a new understanding of American poverty. Washington University Journal of Law and Policy, 20 (1/3), 17-51.

Robinson, G. (2011). The contradictions of caring: Social workers, teachers, and attributions for poverty and welfare reform. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 41(10), 2374-2404. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1559-1816.2011.00825.x

Robinson, J. W. (2009). American poverty cause beliefs and structured inequality legitimation. Sociological Spectrum, 29(4), 489-518. https://doi.org/10.1080/02732170902904681

Rosenwald, M., Wiener, D. R., Smith-Osborne, A., & Smith, C. M. (2012). The place of political diversity within the social work classroom. Journal of Social Work Education, 48(1), 139-158. https://doi.org/10.5175/jswe.2012.201000062

Ryan, C. S., Hunt, J. S., Weible, J. A., Peterson, C. R., & Casas, J. F. (2007). Multicultural and colorblind ideology, stereotypes, and ethnocentrism among Black and White Americans. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 10, 617-637.https://doi.org/10.1177/1368430207084105

Schwartz, S., & Robinson, M. M. (1991). Attitudes toward poverty during undergraduate education. Journal of Social Work Education, 27, 290-296. https://doi.org/10.1080/10437797.1991.10672201

Singh, S. (2019). What do we know the experiences and outcomes of anti-racist social work education? An empirical case study evidencing contested engagement and transformative learning, Social Work Education, https://doi.org/10.1080/02615479.2019.1592148

Toporek, R. L., & Pope-Davis, D. B. (2005). Exploring the relationships between multicultural training, racial attitudes, and attributions of poverty among graduate counseling trainees. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 11(3), 259-271. https://doi.org/10.1037/1099-9809.11.3.259

U.S. Census Bureau. (2017a). We are a changing nation: A series on population trends. https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2017/08/changing-nation-demographic-trends.html

U.S. Census Bureau. (2017b). Income and poverty in the United States. https://www.census.gov/data/tables/2018/demo/income-poverty/p60-263.html

Van Voorhis, R. M., & Hostetter, C. (2006). The impact of MSW education on social worker empowerment and commitment to client empowerment through social justice advocacy. Journal of Social Work Education, 42, 105-121. https://doi.org/10.5175/jswe.2006.200303147

Weaver, R. D., & Yun, S. H. (2011). Analyzing the attitude of undergraduate students toward poverty and impoverished persons: Does social work education make a difference? Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 31, 3-20. https://doi.org/10.1080/08841233.2011.539125

Weiss-Gal, I., Benyamini, Y., Ginzburg, K., Savaya, R., & Peled, E. (2009). Social workers' and service users' causal attributions for poverty. Social Work, 54, 125-133. https://doi.org/10.1093/sw/54.2.125

Williams, C., & Parrott, L. (2014). Anti-racism and predominantly ‘white areas’: Local and national referents in the search for race equality in social work education. British Journal of Social Work, 44(2), 290-309. https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcs113

Yun, S. H., & Weaver, R. D. (2010). Development and validation of a short form of the Attitude Toward Poverty Scale. Advances in Social Work, 11, 174-187. https://doi.org/10.18060/437

Zastrow, C. (2013). Introduction to social work and social welfare: Empowering people. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.