The Recession and the 'Deserving Poor'

Poverty finally on media radar—but only when it hits the middle class

As the economy crumbles, issues of poverty and economic need have begun to make more frequent appearances in the news media. From October through December 2008, for example, the three nightly TV news shows ran 20 stories--about one every four or five days--addressing poverty or related issues such as homelessness or food stamps. A previous FAIR study of nightly news coverage (Extra!, 9-10/07), by comparison, found an average of one poverty story on the evening news every three weeks.

More coverage, though, does not necessarily mean better coverage. And while swelling food-stamp rolls and unemployment lines may become media staples as the economic downturn worsens, the way poverty issues are portrayed remains constrained by political biases and stereotypes.

If there's one commonality to the recent surge in coverage of economic need, it's that the focus is on the newly poor---with particular attention to those who can claim a middle-class background. In one typical segment, ABC World News (11/27/08) visited a food bank in Maryland where the director recalled a former donor of food who had fallen on hard times: "Now, she was getting food from us. And she was embarrassed." Continued correspondent John Donvan:

He was a kitchen installer who now can't find customers. She was a professional dog groomer who now works at Target. . . . This year, they took a serious tumble from the middle class after losing their home in a foreclosure. At least, food stamps would let them shop for groceries just as before, or so they thought."

Journalists, of course, are conditioned to look for unexpected contrasts--so-called "man bites dog" stories. Yet the incessant focus on recent arrivals to poverty ends up marginalizing the 37 million Americans who were officially poor before the economic crash. The Newark Star-Ledger (10/8/08), for example, cited a New Jersey county human services director who "said the requests for help have expanded in recent months beyond a core of lower-income residents in the Morristown and Dover areas. 'These are truck drivers coming in who can't find work. Senior citizens who have never before requested help but can't get by. That's not good.'" (The already existing low-income "core," presumably, was of less concern.)

Some reports even asserted that poverty was now an issue because its new victims weren't really poor: "Healthcare a Budget-Buster for Families; Even County's Middle Class Can't Afford It" ran a typical headline in the Columbus Dispatch (1/15/09)--raising the question of what definition of "middle class" includes being "broke after paying for their basic needs, leaving no money for healthcare or insurance."

It's a contrast, says Stephen Pimpare, a Yeshiva University historian and author of A People's History of Poverty in America, that

taps into very old American notions of what distinguishes the deserving poor from the undeserving poor--trying to distinguish those people who are poor through no fault of their own, and therefore deserve our sympathy and our assistance, and all of those other people who are poor because they're stupid, because they're lazy, because they have too many babies.

Yet, he notes: "The people who are becoming newly poor from being laid off from businesses that are failing are not different than people who were laid off two years ago. The only thing that's unusual about it is the scale."

At times, news outlets strained to find this distinction. A front-page story on "The Growing Foreclosure Crisis" in the Washington Post (1/17/09) sported the subhead: "One oft-repeated assertion no longer holds true. Those in trouble are not, primarily, lower-income borrowers." After describing buyers of million-dollar houses who now found themselves in foreclosure, the Post article reported, "The foreclosure crisis knows no class or income boundaries. Many borrowers ensnared in the evolving mortgage mess do not fit neatly into the stereotypes that surfaced by early 2007 when delinquency rates shot up."

If these were stereotypes, though, they weren't ones you would have gotten from reading the Washington Post. Over the previous two years, the Post had not run a single major story on the effects of the foreclosure crisis on low-income homeowners. It did, however, run an almost identical front-page story one year earlier (12/10/07) with the subhead, "'People From All Walks' Having Trouble Paying Mortgages," as well as front-page articles on foreclosures of condo owners in suburban Silver Spring (4/8/07) and on the effects of foreclosures on pets (4/9/08).

Foreclosures and unemployment insurance were also more likely to receive coverage than, say, welfare (which is seen as the domain of the long-term poor) or the earned income tax credit (which affects low-wage workers, and so is less likely to come into play for those losing middle-class employment). When the NBC Nightly News (12/7/08) had CNBC personal finance expert Carmen Wong Ulrich on to discuss what the newly laid-off should do now, her first recommendation (after "hunker down and really live lean") was to file for unemployment benefits as soon as possible, noting: "This is not part of a welfare program. We all pay for own our unemployment insurance, so you have to go and get it." The implication: Unemployment insurance, which is paid out of payroll taxes, is somehow more legitimate than welfare or food stamps, though these are paid for, after all, by our tax money as well.

Some reporters, meanwhile, felt even nearing 50 million poor Americans was no cause for pessimism: When Princeton economist Paul Krugman said that the prospect of an additional 10 million going below the poverty line was "nightmarish," NBC's Maria Bartiromo (12/1/08) replied, "Perhaps nightmarish, but the optimists will say that, given we have been in recession for a year starting last December, perhaps we are closer to the end and could emerge soon from it." ("I love the attempt at optimism," chimed in anchor Brian Williams.)

Of course, whether we emerge from recession--and whether the poverty figures can be kept from rising, let alone reduced from where they've stood for the better part of three decades--will depend on government policy. Yet almost without exception, media tales of deprivation have steered clear of any mention of policy decisions. When new figures came out in December that one out of 10 Americans were now receiving food stamps, the CBS Evening News devoted a long segment to it (12/23/08), with anchor Harry Smith proclaiming, "A record number of people are now being forced to do something they once considered unthinkable." After profiling a New Hampshire hospital maintenance worker (and Air Force veteran) who had applied for food stamps for the first time--the report didn't say why--correspondent Byron Pitts closed with this exchange:

PITTS: As for John O'Donnell, he's still holding on to his faith.
O'DONNELL: Times will get better. I'm an American and I believe in God.
PITTS: Like so many Americans, that's all he has left.

There is, in fact, a firewall between discussions of poverty and of policy in much of the news media, one that is rarely breached. During a Meet the Press (NBC, 11/16/08) discussion of the then-proposed auto bailout, PBS host Tavis Smiley raised this issue, saying:

We had three presidential debates, let's be honest about it, where the word poverty never came up, where the working poor and the very poor were never discussed in three presidential debates. I don't think, Tom, that the working poor and the very poor in this country begrudge people who are better off. They understand, I think, that there are 3 million jobs tied into this auto industry. At the same time, where is the conversation about corporate mendacity? Where is the conversation about everyday people and how this government is responsible to those persons who are disadvantaged, disenfranchised?

Not on Meet the Press, apparently: The program went on for another 40 minutes without the subject of poverty being addressed again.

One rare exception to the taboo on discussing either government policy or existing poverty was a New York Times editorial (11/27/08) that noted, "Largely missing from the discussion about the faltering economy is the recession's impact on the 37 million Americans who are already living at or below the poverty line--and the millions more who will inevitably join their ranks as the downturn worsens." These figures, it said, were of even more concern given the nation's frayed safety net:

Since the Reagan administration, the federal government has steadily reduced its role in curtailing poverty, or even in coordinating state and local efforts to help alleviate it. . . . The experience of being poor in America, never easy, will soon become even more difficult for more people--unless Congress boosts food stamps, modernizes the unemployment compensation system and takes other steps to strengthen the ability of the federal and state governments to help the millions who will need assistance.

What should be done, according to the Times? After that single sentence urging Congress to boost food stamps and "modernize" unemployment benefits, the editorial spent its final three paragraphs urging a better definition of poverty to replace the now four-decade-old "poverty line." Concluded the Times: "If there was ever a time for more precise measurements, it is now."

Contrast this editorial--which ran on Thanksgiving Day, the traditional time of year for media attention to hunger and poverty--with the five separate editorials the Times ran in the preceding and following weeks (11/2/08, 11/11/08, 11/24/08, 12/7/08, 12/9/08) urging immediate government action to reform mortgage and foreclosure practices. "It wouldn't take much," wrote the Times (11/11/08), to pay banks to rework failing mortgages: a mere $40 billion.

That pittance, it's worth noting, is more than the entire annual U.S. expenditure on food stamps--and well more than the extra $24 billion a year that Joel Berg, a former Clinton USDA official and author of the book All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America?, estimates it would take to eliminate hunger entirely.

It's a distinction that Berg believes has its roots in the cultural divide that exists between largely middle-class journalists and their low-income neighbors. "Many journalists do have mortgages," he says. "They understand from a visceral point of view what it could mean not to be able to get a loan. They have no personal understanding at all of what it might mean to take a bus to another bus to stand in a food stamp office all day."

Pimpare agrees, noting that the main reason notions of the "undeserving poor" broke down during the Great Depression was that so many people saw their friends and neighbors becoming suddenly impoverished. "So much of large audience journalism is produced by people who are not working-class and tend not to know working-class, let alone poor people," he says. "The subtext now is that this is something we need to pay attention to, because 'good, decent people' are being affected."

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