Wealth vs. Poverty: The NYT 's Underreporting of Poverty-related Issues

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 28: A woman sits on the steps of a building in Manhattan on September 28, 2012 in New York City. In
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 28: A woman sits on the steps of a building in Manhattan on September 28, 2012 in New York City. In response to an increase in New York's homeless population, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration plans to open at least five new shelters by the end of this year. Currently the citywide shelter population is 46,036, including 26,503 adults and 19,537 children, which represents a 29% increase since spring 2011. The numbers of New Yorkers counted as homeless have surged after the city ended a rent-subsidy program known as Advantage. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Recently, the New York Times ran an entire, stand-alone, special section entitled "Wealth." The section focused on how the rich can become richer; through smart investment strategies, retirement savings and avoiding looming tax increases (for the wealthy). That the Times will devote an entire section to the topic of wealth, while significantly under-reporting poverty-related issues, is extremely disappointing, if not surprising.

Clearly, the Times finds it more important, and newsworthy, to run stories on 401K investment strategies and the wealthiest Americans rather than the poorest, who by the way, often do not have enough food to eat. When was the last time the Times ran a story on the poorest Americans, the hungry or the homeless? Here are the facts: 50 million people in America are struggling against hunger, including 1 in 5 children. From reading the Times alone, you would think 1 in 5 children in America have a trust fund.

The systematic omissions and misrepresentations by the Times when it comes to poverty-related issues are indicative of a culture that seems to believe that by ignoring a problem, it will simply disappear. In fact, we must accurately report on the condition of poverty in America if we hope to improve it.

I have written the Times to complain on numerous occasions, and as recently as last week, citing these omissions and misrepresentations. I rarely get a response, and, when I do, it's generally perfunctory.

To highlight a few examples: My most recent complaint was prompted by a very biased story on the life of former Mayor Koch ("A 3-Term Mayor as Brash, Shrewd and Colorful as the City He Led" by Robert D. McFadden, February 2, 2013), which included the following paragraph:

His first term, students of government say, was his best. Confronted with the deficits and the constraints of the city's brush with bankruptcy in 1975, he held down spending, subdued the municipal unions, restored the city's creditworthiness, revived a moribund capital budget, began work on long-neglected bridges and streets, cut antipoverty programs and tried to reduce the friction between Manhattan and the more tradition-minded other boroughs.

This implies that it is simply a factual given that cutting poverty programs is a good thing, as obviously a good thing as fixing run-down bridges and filling potholes. Many advocates, myself included, would cite evidence that such cuts actually started long-tern trends resulting in the record homelessness, and the skyrocketing poverty and hunger, faced by low-income New Yorkers today.

The article on Koch later states: "Black leaders were also unhappy with Mr. Koch's decision to purge antipoverty programs and comments he made that they considered insensitive." That's true, but highly incomplete. It implies that only Blacks benefited from poverty programs and that only Black leaders were upset these programs were being cut. In fact, the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, a multi-racial organization, spoke out forcefully against Koch's cuts at the time. So did many other White and Latino anti-poverty leaders.

Meanwhile, Nicholas Kristof continues to imply in his columns that the main cause of domestic poverty is irresponsible behavior by poor people, when many poverty experts -- and poor people themselves -- tend to think that the main causes of U.S. poverty are that jobs are too scarce and wages too low.

For at least a decade, Times writers have regularly equated the quality of life for wealthy New Yorkers with the quality of life for all New Yorkers, and implied that rising homelessness was a threat mostly because it disturbed the quality of life of the non-homeless.

Last March, in a column on Penn Station, Bill Keller wrote: "You have dodged the camping homeless at the Port Authority bus terminal, or wandered lost in the miasmal misery of Pennsylvania Station." He made it sound like homeless people are merely another eyesore to be avoided by the beleaguered commuter. In the same column, he also wrote, "Mayor Michael Bloomberg has done much to make the city more livable." Yet, even before the recession, homelessness, hunger, and poverty were skyrocketing in New York City, due largely to the mayor's failed economic and social policies. At the time that column was published, fully 1.6 million city residents lived below the meager federal poverty line, a number larger than the entire population of Philadelphia. Thus, the facts show that Mayor Bloomberg made the city far less livable for a sizable portion of its residents, although you'd be hard pressed to read those facts in the Times.

I was thrilled to see the uptick in local poverty reporting in the Times following Super-storm Sandy. The story which detailed how non-poor volunteers post-Sandy were exposed to poverty for the first time was very telling. It seemed like, for a brief moment, the Times Metro section also woke up to poverty.

But, alas, the Metro section (other than excellent columns by Michael Powell) seems to have gone back to mostly ignoring poverty again. A case in point is the controversy over the limited manner in which the Bloomberg administration administered the disaster SNAP (formerly food stamp) program. The way the program was handled was criticized by every major elected official in the city (other than the mayor), including Speaker Quinn, Public Advocate De Blasio, Senator Schumer, Senator Gillibrand, and most members of the House of Representatives from the city. Even a Republican on the City Council criticized the mayor for being too stingy in helping poor people. The weakness in the program, including the criticism of the elected officials, generated very significant coverage in the Wall Street Journal, the NY Daily News, and many other media outlets. The Times ran an editorial condemning the way the program was handled. Yet, the Times Metro section essentially ignored this major news story.

While the Times still publishes occasional lengthy enterprise (investigative) features on poverty-related matters (such as the excellent Jason DeParle piece on the difficulty low-income students face in completing college), the Times regularly drops the ball on poverty issues in its spot news coverage. For instance, the massive coverage of the fiscal cliff deal gave short thrift to the impact of the deal upon people in poverty. Similarly, there has been very little explanation of how the pending federal sequestration process might decimate funding for anti-poverty programs. Also, there has been scant coverage of the fact that the Senate Farm Bill, passed last year by Democrats, included massive cuts in SNAP benefits, with especially deep cuts to families in New York State.

The Times rightfully pointed out that the recent presidential campaign included very little focus on poverty, but neglected to mention that so did the media coverage of the campaign. While the Times appropriately covered, at length, why African American and Latinos voted to re-elect Obama in large numbers, it included very little coverage on why poor people did so as well.

I believe history will reflect that one of the most important defining features of America and New York City in 2013 is that they both have rates of poverty, hunger, and homelessness far higher than the rates for those problems in their national and urban counterparts in the rest of the Western industrialized world. If the Times keeps missing this essential story, while delivering entire sections on wealth, it can't continue to be the "paper of record."