The editors of The New York Times Magazine had a good idea recently. They noticed that poor people had pretty much disappeared from the media’s picture of American society but not, of course, from society itself. The editors came up with a plan to present a modern photographic essay of real people, with none of that Walker Evans/Dorothea Lange-type ennobling-of-the-poor-by-casting-them-in-granite stuff. Moreover, they hoped to give these people a chance to speak of their feelings about the rich, who, judging by the media coverage, suddenly meant “everyone.” To accompany the essay, the editors asked James Fallows to write an article covering the opposite end of the spectrum, speaking to the newly wealthy about just what they saw as their responsibility to the poor.
Fallows’s essay succeeded in illustrating the uncomfortable fact that for many of the new rich, the poor have simply ceased to exist as much more than a nuisance. But according to editor Adam Moss, the interview subjects did not yield up any useful material about how the poor viewed the new rich. So difficult and all-encompassing was the simple task of making it through each day that they didn’t really have the time or inclination to ruminate about them. So the photographs were forced to speak for themselves and, next to Fallows’s essay, ended up communicating a mixed and ultimately rather confusing message. The poor were no longer exactly invisible, but neither–at least in this case–did they have an articulate voice of their own.
When Michael Harrington published The Other America in 1962, mainstream culture was still willing to accept some responsibility for the plight of the poor and to listen to them in trying to craft potential solutions. Today, however, conservative ideologues have managed to shape the assumptions of the debate so effectively that the problem of poverty has been decided–as if by decree–to be one exclusively of character, thereby absolving the rest of us of any responsibility.
While the media are once again picking up the story of poverty, they are still having difficulty communicating the problems of the poor in their own voices. The Times‘s Jason DeParle, arguably the best poverty reporter in America, has been on leave for most of this year to write a book on welfare reform, leaving a big hole in the paper of record’s coverage. (The networks appear to have given up entirely.) The Times recently reported, on page A20, on a new HUD study revealing that 5.4 million low-income families are paying more than half their income for housing or living in dilapidated units, a rise of 12 percent since 1991. The story quoted HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo and Republican Rick Lazio but no actual low-income people. Similarly, while we do hear frequently of the 43 million Americans who lack health insurance, rarely do we read or hear about what it’s like to raise a sick child without it.
Again, thoughtful, engaging reporting on the poor is neither easy nor profitable and hence does not appeal to media conglomerates and their talk-show bookers. Most poor people do not speak in clever soundbites and would not be able to hold the interest of a Chris Matthews or a Cokie Roberts long enough to say their names. But a number of independent-minded reporters have demonstrated of late that even in our new gilded age, this is an important story with powerful implications even for those who do not worry about becoming poor anytime soon. In addition to DeParle’s work, and that of columnists like Juan Gonzalez and Bob Herbert, not to mention Katherine Boo’s prizewinning coverage for the Washington Post, there has been some fine reporting in alternative publications like Southern Exposure. Even trendy, glossy Esquire recently published Charles Pierce’s brilliant take on the life-and-death impact of cuts in the Supplemental Security Income program, along with the irresponsible role played by big-time reporters like Bob Woodward and Chris Wallace in blowing up another “waste, fraud and abuse” scandal that simply wasn’t there. Still, it’s a hell of a day for the Republic when the media figure most consistently identified with writing about the plight of the poor is named Arianna Huffington.
No doubt the most ambitious reporting on the subject can be found in the recent Bill Moyers PBS broadcast, Surviving the Good Times. Having won the confidence of two remarkable working-class families in Milwaukee, Moyers’s producers have been filming their lives for the past decade, amassing more than 200 hours of tape. In the life stories of the Neumann and Stanley families, viewers see layoffs, lost benefits, hospitalizations and family fights, as well as a mother watching the first child on either side of her family graduate from high school. These are the kinds of people with whom few in the media have any direct experience.
The program’s painful irony was that these families embody exactly the values to which our political culture pretends to pay tribute. Tony Neumann loses his union job when Briggs & Stratton picks up and moves south to chase cheap labor. We observe the way his loss of self-respect eats away at his ability to be a good father and husband. The family turns to their church for spiritual support. When Tony does get a job, he is so deep in debt that he has to accept work on the night shift, creating another kind of family burden. His teenage daughter complains that she sees her father for one hour a day, when he is “crabby and irritable” and no help with her homework. His wife becomes an armored-truck driver, and they grumble that they never sleep together anymore: “It stinks.” Across town, Claude Stanley’s son joins the Navy in the hope of going to college afterward, while the family is stuck with usurious credit-card fees as the only way to pay his older brother’s first-semester tuition.
These people’s burdens increase every time Alan Greenspan raises interest rates just enough to keep Cisco soaring. Talk about invisible… This may sound like a joke, but when was the last time you heard a TV analyst–even a PBS TV analyst–comment on a Fed rate rise from the perspective of the Stanleys and the Neumanns?