When reporting on poverty, the media fall into familiar traps and pundits make prescriptions that disregard the facts. So, in the fifth and final installment of our series, "Busted: America's Poverty Myths," we present a Breaking News Consumer's Handbook: Poverty in America Edition. It'll equip you with the tools to spot shoddy reporting and the knowledge to identify coverage with insight.
With help from Jack Frech, former Athens County welfare director; Kathryn Edin, co-author of $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America; Greg Kaufmann, editor of TalkPoverty.org; Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City; and Linda Tirado, author of Hand To Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. Now starts the final lap in our poverty tour, which begins as we did, with the Virgil of our expedition, Jack Frech who was, for 33 years, the welfare director of Athens County in Appalachian Ohio. He has led legions of journalists on the tour, grappling all the while with the customs and quirks of the media biz, as when, some years back, an NBC Dateline producer spelled out exactly what his story required.
JACK FRECH: So he [LAUGHS] basically said he was pitching this to his bosses and he had to sell it to ‘em, and I’m spouting off statistics, like I always do, rattling off budget numbers. And he said, the truth of the matter is we like to see a story arc. I thought I knew this biz but I hadn’t really heard the “story arc” thing. So I - you know, like, okay, what does that mean? And he said, we like to start out and tell a story, describe the people, describe what's going on and then the crisis they’re facing, rises up, rises up, and then there’s some resolution to it. He said, it doesn’t have to be a good resolution, we like it better if it is but, you know, there needs to be a story arc. And I said, there is no story arc for these folks. Their lives suck. They have hard lives. Their arcs come and go within a day. They get food today, they find a place to stay today. They don’t have it tomorrow. You know we’re not talking about people who have this arc that’s gonna be, I get this great job and my life is wonderful. Yes, I can find you a few people who are like that, but that is not the story of these poor people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So our series launched with the question of how to tell the story. It concludes with the corollary, how to take the story in. To that end, we present the “Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: Poverty in America Edition” because the presence of poverty unsettles our deepest beliefs about ourselves and our fellow man, and those beliefs inevitably shape the media’s narrative, whether mine or Fox News.
SPECIAL REPORT HOST BRET BAIER: Your tax dollars are helping welfare recipients enjoy vacations at some very exotic destinations poverty.
BILL O’REILLY: True poverty is being driven by personal behavior, not an unfair economic system.
STUART VARNEY: The image we have of poor people as starving and living in squalor really is not accurate. Many of them have things. What they lack is the richness of spirit. That’s my opinion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Because this is my epilogue, you’ll hear an opposing view. But I think, I hope there’s common ground in presumably un-inflected U.S. Census data. So here are some foundational numbers. America's median income is $56,500. In the 48 contiguous states, the official poverty guideline for one person is $11,880, for two people it’s $16,020. Add a little over four grand for every person in a household after that. If you work full time for the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, after deducting Social Security and Medicare, your weekly paycheck is $267.81 a week, or just under $14,000 a year, well under the poverty line for, say, a mother and her kid.
Okay, now let's talk about the media. We’ve previously examined the myth of lazy welfare recipients. Sure, they exist but since most working age people on public assistance already work or live in working families, I’m guessing laziness is almost as rare as cash. But that’s a guess. It’s facts that should prompt skepticism of stories based on the premise of laziness, not to mention there's a fair chance that someday those stories may be pointing their finger at you.
GREG KAUFMANN: Forty percent (40%) of us will experience at least one year of poverty during our working years, so we really have to get over this notion that this is just a problem of a fixed group and it's a generational thing and it's about them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Greg Kaufmann is the editor of
talkpoverty.org at the Liberal Center for American Progress. For him, the red flag is the word “dependent” or “dependency,” used in contexts like this.
RUSH LIMBAUGH: But you’re certainly not going to eradicate poverty by creating dependency. Santa Claus is not a cure for property.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s point one. Beware of the word “dependency,” which affects a few but is used as a dog whistle to denounce both the poor and the programs that help them.
GREG KAUFMANN: “Dependent” is a huge one, that people are just living off the fat of the safety net, right? And if you look at the facts, I mean, federal rental assistance, one in four eligible households receives it, and the average income for those households is $12,500 a year. If you look at federal childcare assistance, one in six or seven eligible families actually receives it. And food stamps, I think that's the biggest one that people talk about dependency with, the average recipient receives a dollar 41 per meal. I mean, [LAUGHS] you just aren't kicking back and living off of that.
KATHY EDIN: The biggest mistake journalists make is they think that we still have a vibrant welfare system.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kathy Edin, coauthor of $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, underscores Point 2. The safety net is not as solid as it is portrayed.
KATHY EDIN: I just got a media inquiry yesterday, a reporter who would like to speak to me about how we can rescue people from dependence on welfare and bring them into the labor market. I get these every day. [LAUGHS] I write back, could you tell me what welfare system you are [LAUGHS] talking about because it's not one we have. Some reporters really get caught up in this notion that maybe we shouldn't regard the poorest so badly off because we've now given them more Medicaid. The idea that people can pay their rent with their medical card, it's nonsensical. You still need cash to survive in America.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The series’ fourth episode punctured the safety net myths, but it didn’t bear down on the notion of welfare dependency, so consider this. Federal cash assistance, what's called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, is block granted to states with virtually no oversight, so states can spend it on anything they like which apparently isn't needy families. And since the program began 20 years ago, the real value of the benefit has plunged by 20%. Now, in Connecticut, a single-parent family of three gets 698 bucks a month or about 175 a week. In New Jersey, it's 424 a month. In Florida, it's 303 - a month, in Tennessee 185, for a family of three. Why can’t we get these takers off the rolls and into work?
Well, aside from there not being enough jobs that pay above the poverty line, the vast majority just can't work because the Census Bureau says that a quarter of the poor are kids, roughly 14% are elderly, 13% disabled, 9% are engaged in caring for someone full-time, 8% are students and 16% percent are already fully employed. That’s 85%. The remainder includes many workers who are suffering through a dry spell in a bad market. We could move them into work if we covered their basic expenses and training and helped them find jobs, but we don't.
So Point 3, scrutinize proposals that would reform welfare by focusing almost exclusively on welfare to work.
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These are political seductions. They don't apply to our world. GREG KAUFMANN: Something else the media constantly does, it, it picks an extreme example to reinforce the myth that poverty is, in essence, about making better choices.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the third episode parsed the myth of social mobility and the role of choice or the lack thereof. If you are one of the rare few who gets a housing voucher, the landlords in good affordable neighborhoods reject you. If you crave schooling, for-profit colleges defraud and beggar you. If you scrimp for a down payment on a stable home, predatory mortgage brokers pounce and plunder you. Even federal aid allotted to states and block grants to provide cash to the poor are diverted and denied.
Call that Point 4. Poverty cannot be blamed on poor choices. Everybody makes them. But the poor don't have the resources to recover from them, which brings us to Point 5. Beware simplistic formulations that see poverty as a moral failure. Such failures in, say, communities plagued by eviction and transience, are not a cause of poverty but a byproduct of it. Kaufman was enraged by a David Brooks column in The New York Times a few years back that lamented the lack of social norms. And though Brooks said this failing plagues all income levels, he drew his examples of abnormal behavior exclusively from the poor.
GREG KAUFMANN: Let’s flip that script. The moral failure is the lack of accountability for the policies that our elected leaders are choosing. I wish our policymakers would look in the mirror and say, hey, do I accept that somebody working full time is paid a wage that keeps them in poverty, do I accept that a parent can't take a day of paid leave to care for their sick child?
LINDA TIRADO: Let’s use me for an example ‘cause I’m intimately familiar with this coverage.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Linda Tirado, author of Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, spent much of her life broke. She became a writer when she replied to a commenter on Gawker who groused about spotting a person with food stamps and an iPhone. Tirado minced no words conveying how it felt to be poor. And then she was slammed for being insufficiently impoverished and for the choices she'd made.
LINDA TIRADO: The first question that I got was, how dare you have children? The second question I got was, why didn't you abort your children? The third question I got was, why didn't you adopt them out? Then I saw a line, why did you drop out of college, why are you a smoker, what do you mean you drink beer, how is it possible you have a computer” Anytime you can find in a newspaper story a poor person with a vice, they’re gonna talk about that. Listen, I might have a can of Mickey's with my friends. It costs me $1.50, deal with it. Your bottle of Bordeaux was $75 but, Sweetie, you’re just as wasted at the end of it. Like vice is not a unique facet of, of a lower socio and economic status. It is not the faults of the people who can't find work that they're not getting a paycheck. It's the fault of the people who say they're creating jobs and then have failed to do so for year over year over year.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I wasn't going to present a sad story this time. I don't want the Dickensian nature of some of this to inspire paralysis. But on the matter of moral judgments, it's worth remembering what I'll call Point 6. The media never do, never can tell the whole story. Just imagine how this story might play on the nightly news.
MATTHEW DESMOND: One of the families I met in Milwaukee was three kids and a single mom named Vanetta. And Vanetta was workin’ hard.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Matthew Desmond got to know Vanetta and many others in similar straits while writing Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American.
MATTHEW DESMOND: She was working at Old Country Buffet, cleaning up messes and pulling every shift she could. You know, she was raised by a homeless single mom and bounced between homeless shelter to homeless shelter. She had a tough upbringing but she wanted to work and raise her kids. And her hours got cut back and they got cut back some more. And she was so terrified of losing her home and maybe her kids that she committed an armed robbery to try to get rent money. And this was someone that had no criminal record.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If I recall the story, there weren't any bullets in the gun.
MATTHEW DESMOND: She wasn't even the one holding the gun –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah.
MATTHEW DESMOND: - according to the court records, but she did take the purse, you know, and she confessed to the robbery. And she felt terrible that she did that. She was acting out of desperation. And up until that moment, she was playing by the rules, you know? She was working hard.
You know, Milwaukee lost more jobs between 1979 and 1984 than it did during the Great Depression.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So be wary of pundits and politicians making moral judgments. Likewise, Point 7 - Proceed with caution if a poverty story has an arc that features a unicorn.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: David Askew used to be homeless too, after serving time for armed robbery. Now he's an artist.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Steve Morgan, he started out digging sewer ditches in Wales. He borrowed $10,000 to start a building company. Now he's a billionaire developer –
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Greg Williams was also homeless after decades in and out of prison for drugs. Now he owns his own pie business.
GREG KAUFMANN: I’m not saying that those stories about exceptional people aren’t important.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Greg Kaufmann.
GREG KAUFMANN: The problem is that if you aren't showing through the body of your work what it really takes for most people, the kinds of obstacles they’re up against, the odds they face and the lack of good policy that’s making it harder for them, the problem is you look at these exceptional stories, the unicorn stories, and you think, oh yeah, it’s about hard work. And so, the people who aren’t getting out of poverty are failing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Point 8. Seek out stories with context. Poverty is not an individual problem, it’s a systemic one.
GREG KAUFMANN: I think if we see the problem of poverty more in terms of, you know, what happens to make people fall into poverty - it can be a birth of a child, it can be certainly jobs in poverty wages, it can be, you know, an unexpected illness - I think that has tremendous consequences and implications in term of policies. And this, I think, is a big point. Rather than seeing poverty as the failure of an individual, let's look at how the economy and some of the policy choices we’re making are failing people.
You know Brooke, if you look at the minimum wage in the late 1960s, it was sufficient to lift a family of three out of poverty. Today, that same family is gonna make about $15,000 a year and be, you know, more than $4,000 below the poverty line for a family of three. So why have we not updated the minimum wage so it's not a poverty wage? Why aren’t we rebuilding our communities and our abandoned housing and schools that are literally crumbling? You know, why aren’t we looking at renewable energy? All of this would create jobs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the tax system, single childless adults don’t qualify for the generous tax credit that has lifted legions of families above the poverty line. So if you are alone making, say, $12,500 a year, which is, shockingly, a smidge above the poverty line, after taking deductions and a smaller tax credit, you’ll still owe nearly 1,000 to Uncle Sam. You’ve just sunk below the line. That happens to 7.5 million people. And healthcare costs on our little anecdotal trek through Ohio - it was health-related emergencies that set off a person's disaster spiral every time. More than 11 million people last year were pushed into poverty by out-of-pocket medical expenses, including insurance premiums, prescription drug costs and doctor office co-pays. How many more lost their jobs because of absenteeism, I can't say, but that’s what we saw.
LINDA TIRADO: You know, poverty is a societal problem, and if I tell people one thing, it’s that even if you look at an individual example of a systemic problem, it is still a systemic problem.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Linda Tirado.
LINDA TIRADO: Another thing that we see quite frequently, and you’ll see this with Paul Ryan in their, their opportunity grant and their - whatever they're calling it now, the promise for America's future, whatever boilerplate, they focus on the chronic long-term unemployed and, and families who have been on generational welfare, and they focus on ways to get those folks off of welfare. What they fail to understand is the vast majority of welfare recipients come on and off programs over the course of their lives. The average American will actually fit the definition of poor or impoverished four times over the course of their life. It’s not a static thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s Point 9.
LINDA TIRADO: And so, when people come in and they take the snapshot of your life when you're having a really rough time and they go, okay, well, let’s reverse engineer the decisions that got you here, well now we’ve got a nice tidy narrative. It narrows people's existence and awareness of poverty down into a series of turning points and decisions. And that’s not what poverty is. Poverty and, and being working poor is doing your best every single day against a system that is designed to not help you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Point 10. Seek coverage that allows space for people in poverty to speak for themselves.
LINDA TIRADO: Don’t go find you a poor person to spotlight, to put up on there and to judge really harshly. You go talk to people and when you find somebody who happens to be living in straitened economic circumstances, you help them tell their story. You do not tell their story for them because we don't need the help. We’re very good communicators. We mostly work in the service industry, for God’s sake.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Linda, tell me a story.
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LINDA TIRADO: So when we moved to Cincinnati, we got the cheapest apartment we could find. It was the lowest apartment in the building, and we got hit by a summer storm. So what didn't get destroyed by water got destroyed by mold. And I was, I think, seven and a half months pregnant, eight months pregnant at the time. So I was calling every charity I could, thinking, I just need a chair. For - for whatever reason in my head, if I could just get a chair, then everything else would be fine. [LAUGHS] But I needed a place to sit. I, I got in touch with one charity who said, yeah, you can come and pick up a chair but we’re gonna need you to go to a resume-writing class. And I said, for what, and they said, well, because we need you to be looking for work and trying to better your situation; we don't just give charity to just anybody. We need to make sure that you’re, you know, invested, you got some skin in the game. And I said, okay, when is the resume-writing class? And he gave me two different times. And I said, well, I have to be at work at both of those times. And they said, well, if you want the charity you have to show up to the class. And I was like, if I, if I come to the class I’ll get fired. And this woman was telling me how I really needed to learn to write my resume [LAUGHS] so that I could find gainful employment, so that I could get the stupid chair that was probably worth five bucks.
That is what personal responsibility means to somebody on welfare. It means here are these stupid hoops that we’re gonna make you jump through and then we’re going to give you a solution that absolutely won't work for you. It’s that kind of just over and over beating your head against these ridiculous regulations and these double-blinds that don't make any sense. And the whole thing is set up specifically to humiliate you as much as possible because what we need poor people to do in America more than anything else in the world is know their place.
Even though I don't have any standing in this field, I wrote a whole list of solutions I’d come across in my research to fix poverty. Establish a formula for the minimum wage pegged to half the median wage in region or let the government replace the federal minimum wage with a formula, so it doesn't wither as the cost of living rises. Or how about a basic income paid monthly? That would slash the cost of the bloated welfare bureaucracy, and people on both sides of the political spectrum have liked the idea at various times, a jobs program, single-payer medical care, radically expanding the housing voucher program and building more low-income housing in good neighborhoods. Sounds expensive but, actually, we do have the money if we choose to redistribute. It’s the political capital that’s missing.
The poor are too hard at work surviving to be good advocates for themselves, and the politicians - well, those politicians left the building a long time ago.
PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: We have at our disposal the national resources, the money, the skill of hand and head, to raise our economic level, our citizens’ income. Our capacity is limited only by our ability to work together. What is needed is the will.
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“Busted: America’s Poverty Myths” was produced by Meara Sharma and Eve Claxton and edited by Katya Rogers, with special thanks to Nina Chowdry. This series was produced in collaboration with WNET in New York as part of “Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America.” Major funding for “Chasing the Dream” was provided by the JPB Foundation, with additional funding from the Ford Foundation.
If you want to hear the whole series, we’ve gathered it all in one place. Just go to onthemedia.org/poverty.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On The Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman, Paige Cowett, Micah Loewinger and Sara Qari. We had more help from Leah Feder. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Casey Holford. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone.