Re-thinking the Poverty Narrative: Journalists, academics should highlight who benefits from inequality

June 12, 2020

By Kalena Thomhave
Poverty Solutions at U-M

The Poverty Narrative: A Midwest Perspective, a virtual journalism conference series, kicked off Thursday, June 11, with a session on re-thinking the poverty narrative that will serve as a foundation for future sessions. Panelists, with moderator and Poverty Solutions faculty director Luke Shaefer, discussed the role that journalism plays in creating and sustaining public narratives on poverty as well as solutions to ensure that storytelling about poverty moves past exploitation and stereotypes.

Sarah Alvarez, executive editor at Outlier Media in Detroit, argued that journalism “plays too large of a role” in shaping the poverty narrative, especially because most mainstream journalism is not written for low-income people. That’s why Alvarez founded Outlier in the first place: to fill an information gap for people with low incomes. Outlier uses public data to provide marginalized populations with tools to keep the powerful people in their lives—e.g. landlords—accountable. 

At the same time, Bill Nichols and Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity is actively working to increase accurate coverage of poverty issues through traditional reporting as local newsrooms continue to shutter nationally. He noted that newsroom employment has fallen by more than half over the past decade with severe consequences for work on social issues like poverty. Nichols shared that when he worked at the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1980s, roughly 100 people worked in the newsroom. Today, there are fewer than two dozen reporters at the paper. Mississippi consistently has one of the highest poverty levels in the country and severe racial inequality, yet few journalists are left to shine a light on what’s happening in the state. Spotlight works with a network of freelancers across the country to tell these stories that may otherwise never get told.

Zoe Greenberg, general assignment reporter at The Boston Globe, shared her approach to covering poverty issues, echoing a statement of Alvarez’s that “poverty is investigative journalism.” Greenberg wants her readers to question why poverty and racism exist, reminding the audience that “there are people who suffer from [poverty], and people … who have stakes in maintaining it.” Her story about the blood plasma industry moved beyond whether such an industry is moral and explained how low-income communities use the sale of their blood as a “survival tool” in order to afford basic needs.

Darrick Hamilton, preeminent scholar and executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, urged reporters and academics to focus their work within historical context and a more complete understanding of how we have arrived at a moment of gross inequality and rampant systemic racism. The stories so often told in the media of an “undeserving,” usually Black, poor population merely serve to justify growing wealth consolidation at the top in the face of significant cuts to the social safety net. 

Related: Working Towards Economic and Racial Justice: A conversation with Darrick Hamilton, from Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity

We begin this conference amid the coronavirus pandemic and during the aftermath of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the subsequent unrest across the country aimed at police violence has already shifted the narrative of what is possible. Greenberg shared that reporters at the Globe are researching what defunding the police—a demand of activists—could look like. Policies that Hamilton and other academics like Shaefer study—child allowances, baby bonds, universal basic income, a federal job guarantee—are other possible solutions journalists can explore when reporting on poverty, moving beyond simple narratives of deprivation and into analysis of what powerful interests benefit from such deprivation and what a better, more equitable world could look like. 

The Poverty Narrative conference continues on June 16. Sign up for the next session. 

More resources on Re-thinking the Poverty Narrative

Panelists shared the following examples of productive coverage of poverty issues:

How Homeownership Became the Engine of American Inequality, by Matthew Desmond, for New York Times Magazine

  • Zoe Greenberg shared this piece because it focuses on the choices the government has made about who to subsidize and who not to subsidize. It focuses on policies and who benefits from those policies, rather than individual circumstances.

Unexpected Parasite Plagues the Rural South, by Susan Marie Shuman, for Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity

  • Bill Nichols shared this piece because it takes an investigative approach to looking at why the hookworm outbreak happened and what could be done about it, beyond simply documenting the living conditions.

America, This is Your Chance, by Michelle Alexander, for the New York Times 

How Do We Change America?, by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, for The New Yorker

  • Darrick Hamilton highlighted these pieces because they include historical context to help people make sense of current events.