Monday, September 26, 2011

Lay Off The Poverty Porn

Whenever a journalist writes about a current social or political trend, the story is supposed to include a couple of case studies. It's not enough to report "This problem exists"; you must find some people suffering from said problem and willing to discuss it on the record.

For some problems, that's easy: when I was a staff reporter for an alt-weekly, and wrote on a subject like "Medical marijuana users push for legalization," all I had to do was call various pro-legalization organizations and introduce myself as a sympathetic journalist, and the organizations were happy to put me in touch with medical MJ users willing to chat.

It's harder to write hard-times stories; many people affected by them are ashamed of their newly reduced circumstances. Suppose you need to write on the theme "The food bank says donations are down and requests for help are up, with the economy likely to blame"; ideally, you need someone who (because of the economy) recently cut back on former food-bank donations, and someone else who became a food-bank client for the first time. Except those first-timers don't want to talk to you, don't want their name or face in a news story about the Nouveau Pauvre, and when you finally do find someone willing to openly discuss their reliance on food banks, you often find yourself facing an unpleasant truth: this person has one of the least sympathetic sob stories ever.

Relevant anecdote: two winters ago, when I worked for a dying local daily, an unfortunate freelancer was hired to write a story about a local charity that bought coats and other cold-weather gear for poor kids who couldn't afford it. The point, of course, was to make readers want to donate time or money to said charity.

The day the story broke, I read it online and winced before I finished the second paragraph. The case study -- the individual client chosen to put a Human Face on those whom the charity helps -- was a never-married woman who quit her cashier job at McDonald's after catching pregnant with her ninth child.

She and her children aren't poor because the economy stinks or there's too many holes in the social safety net; they're poor because the woman is a cataclysmic idiot who refuses to learn from her mistakes, and because you can't raise a family of ten on a minimum-wage income insufficient for one. And sure enough, many people who commented on the story pointed this out and added, "Well, I WAS going to donate some of my hard-earned money to this cause, but after seeing what utter basket cases that money will be spent on...."

The next winter, when the paper ran another story about the cold-weather charity, the editor made the wise decision to simply run a press release, with no case studies. Kudos to the paper, and I mean that sincerely; winters can get pretty frigid around here, and it's bad enough being one of the nine offspring of a pathologically irresponsible parent without getting frostbite, too.

So I cringe when I read mainstream news stories about the Plight of the Poor, because all-too-often they turn out to be the Plight of the Makers of Consistently Bad Decisions. On New Year's Day 2007, just before the economy went sour, I wrote an irritated post about one such story; the poor-me woman in question kept her three pet dogs even though she couldn't afford to feed herself and the dogs repeatedly got her evicted from her rental housing.

And I cringed again when I tried reading today's LA Times story "Fear, Uncertainty are common themes as families face economic toll." The first case study:

Staring resolutely ahead, a heavily pregnant Veronica Long pushed a stroller along 5th Street in downtown Los Angeles, past the junkies, the psych patients and those with no place to go. She ignored the whispers from crack dealers outside San Julian Park and strangers who hollered at her: “Go home!”

Before the recession, home was a two-bedroom house with a pool in Reseda. For most of this year, it was a shelter on skid row.

Veronica's husband, Jonathan, had a busy studio where he recorded and produced up-and-coming rap, hip-hop and R&B artists. But when the economy tanked, his clients ran out of money and he had to pawn his equipment to pay the bills.

The family downsized to an apartment in Long Beach, then a friend's spare room in Corona. When the friend was evicted last year, Jonathan, 35, Veronica, 34, and their four children ages 3 to 8 were homeless.

In hindsight, perhaps having so many children while still heavily in debt was not the best decision. But what's done is done, and there's no point blaming the couple for it now (though the soda and large bag of Cheetos visible in the photograph leads me to suspect that whatever food money they do have, they're not spending too wisely).
The Longs squeezed into a room at the Union Rescue Mission, which has turned over two floors of its main shelter to families washing up on skid row. Soon after, Veronica found out she was pregnant. (She thought she couldn't have more children because of a medical condition.)
Sigh. I'm guessing she plans to keep Baby #5 when he or she arrives.
Jonathan was thrilled when he found a job doing event security, but the work was sporadic. Other employers turned him down. He thought it might have to do with the tattoos covering his arms, a relic of his music industry days. When a young boy admired them in the hallway, he snapped: “I regret every single one.”
In hindsight, perhaps spending a lot of money on elaborate tattoos while deeply in debt and trying to raise an ever-growing brood of children was even less of a good decision. But what's done is done, he already feels bad about it and there's no point criticizing the decision now, though if he thinks his heavily tattooed arms are keeping him from job opportunities, why doesn't he wear long sleeves?

On a June morning, the family piled their belongings into two minivans and moved into transitional housing in Koreatown operated by Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. They pulled up in front of a building on a quiet, residential street. ... Their ground-floor apartment had two roomy bedrooms with bunk beds. ... They didn't stay long. After a dispute with staff over house rules, the family moved to an L.A. Family Housing transitional facility in North Hollywood.

No mention of exactly what those disputed house rules were. If my broke self had four kids to support and a fifth on the way and Jewish Family Service offered us a free furnished two-bedroom in a nice neighborhood, I'd keep a kosher kitchen if that's what they demanded. No bacon and no cheeseburgers still beats no place to live.

On the other hand, if Jewish Family Services required the man and his sons to get circumcised, then I genuinely sympathize with the family here. But if that were the case, I'm pretty sure the story would have mentioned it.

I have no doubt many Americans today are in dire financial straits through no fault of their own: illness not covered by insurance, no-fault job loss followed by prolonged unemployment ... even someone with no debt and a decent financial cushion can land in deep trouble, if such calamities strike. I wish the LA Times had written about such a couple rather than Jonathan and Veronica.

Maybe the second couple has a bit more sense:
Three years after the collapse of his six-figure income, Eric Petersen ...[and his] family has managed to hang on to its dream home in Coto de Caza, a gated community with golf courses and polo grounds that at one time was the primary setting for the reality TV series “The Real Housewives of Orange County.” But inside their five-bedroom house, which they bought for $375,000 in 1997, there are signs of trouble. Laundry hangs in the garden because they can't afford to fix the dryer. The facing is coming off the kitchen cabinetry. The shelves are stocked with handouts from a food pantry. When the housing market peaked, Eric, 46, made up to $360,000 a year...But in the last three years, he has made just $70,000 on real estate transactions, most of it on a single deal. Many months he made nothing.

The Petersens burned through their savings, credit cards, home equity line and help from relatives. This year, they missed two mortgage payments....

But they're still "hanging onto their dream home." Though I don't know how much longer they can keep that up; the story says monthly expenses for themselves and their two sons "come to about $7,000 a month, including some $4,000 in mortgage payments." Seven grand a month equals $84,000 per year. If you're trying to live an $84,000 annual lifestyle (including $48,000 in mortgage payments) on a $23,000 annual income, you again fail to meet the criteria for "sympathetic story about Americans in dire straits despite living within their means."

The third case study should have been the first; no extravagant mortgage or other debt mentioned, but the couple both work for public schools and their hours and wages have been cut. (Granted, I've known for a while now that public-sector employment costs have grown too high to be sustainable in the long run, and thus would never bet my long-term future on a no-power public job, but I can't blame them for lacking the insights gleaned from reading snarky libertarian blogs).

I still have no doubt that in this dreadful economy, many millions of Americans are poor through no fault of their own, yet the media Case Studies all-too-often focus on "these people are idiots" scenarios, which in turn makes it easy for others to insist "ALL poor people are idiots" leading inevitably to "we need not help the poor at all." According to the LA Times, after all, two out of three poor families have entitlement issues and the third was dreadfully naive.

4 Comments:

Blogger Steamboat Lion said...

Maybe couple 3 with their underwater mortgage are stuck, and I don't think case 1 has a car, but why don't couple #2 get in their minivan and drive to North Dakota where unemployment is like nothing? What they'd rather be on welfare in sunny southern CA than employed in ND?

On a more serious note, perhaps the reason so many case studies are the undeserving poor is maybe because they significantly outnumber the deserving poor? My experience has been that people who take responsibility for their circumstances don't stay victims of said circumstances forever, unlike those who blame everyone but themselves...

4:47 PM  
Blogger Jennifer Abel said...

The "deserving poor" still could use some help, though, and they're less likely to get it if they stay invisible. But I suspect the Venn diagram of "deserving poor" and "people who don't want to talk to the media about being poor" has a lot of overlap in its circles.

I don't blame the reporter; if I had to write such a story, I have no idea how to find somebody. Sure, the food bank would likely let me hang around and look for people, but many would not want to speak, at least not on the record. (I know I wouldn't want to.)

9:01 PM  
Blogger David said...

I think that there are many people who are poor and always have been because of poor-paying jobs. These people work hard, often at multiple jobs, doing real work (as opposed to paper pushing nonsense that our society rewards so well). These are the people that get the short end of the stick all the time and things are getting worse for them. The ranks of this group grow daily thanks to the policy decisions that have been made for the last few decades. Socialism for the Rich, Capitalism for the Rest.

Then there is a whole segment of newly poor people that were formerly middle class people with better than average paying jobs. These people made $50 - 100K and thought they were on the gravy train for life so made a point of going into debt for new cars every year, multiple homes, the best they could finance. Every day brought them opportunities for making idiotic decisions and they missed none of them. Too many kids, too many toys. I know someone near retirement age who raided his meager 401K to buy a $3000 patio door when a $300 door would have done just fine. I know people who have their utilities turned off routinely due to lack of payment but won't downscale from imported beer to cheap beer (or better yet, to water). These are the people that deserve all the misery they will get when our society collapses beneath the weight of Stupid, and I have zero sympathy for them.

8:29 AM  
Anonymous Russ 2000 said...

This is the reason I gave up on newspapers. If the editor can't tell the difference between the sympathetic and the scorn-worthy, what else are they incapable of deciphering? Seems like papers have stretched their reporting staffs so thin they are more concerned with filling inches than with actual news that sometimes takes more than a couple days to cover.

Papers really need to start putting up on-line paywalls, not that it will generate any revenue. I was in the habit of paging through a newspaper or two daily. When the content was available on-line I started realizing that there wasn't all that much there. Might want to hide that fact and a paywall could be the best way.

11:44 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

FREE hit counter and Internet traffic statistics from freestats.com