Did everyone mark yesterday's amazing milestone? It began with the Census Bureau releasing a report, that stated the following:
The poverty rate rose to 14.3 percent during 2009 from 13.2 percent the previous year as household income stayed flat and the number of people without health insurance reached its highest level since such data has been collected, the government announced Thursday.
The first year of Barack Obama's presidency started with 700,000 people losing their jobs each month and sensational reports of formerly middle-class families crowding tent cities across the country. The tent cities, it turned out, were there before the recession started, but the rise in poverty was real: For working age people between 18 and 64, 2009 saw the highest poverty rate -- 12.9 percent -- since 1965.
The overall rate is the highest since 1994. Some poverty watchers had expected the poverty rate to jump as high as 15 percent.
"Today's news is sobering, showing that 2009 was a year with increased poverty and rising numbers of uninsured Americans," said Rebecca Blank, the Commerce Department's undersecretary for economic affairs.
Yes, it was sobering news, and the brief moment of sobriety marked the annual moment where the media pays attention to poverty for a few days, before hitting the sauce again.
The moment called to mind a conversation I had with Pulitzer-Prize-winning author and Columbia School of Journalism professor Dale Maharidge about a year ago at this time. I asked him why the media fails to address poverty in a substantive way. Maharidge had a lot to say on the matter!
THE HUFFINGTON POST: At the root of the financial crisis seems to be an overall asymmetry of information. You've touched on this a little already, in distinguishing between news that informs and what the business press had become: an outlet for naked boosterism. Is there a way of combating this asymmetry?
MAHARIDGE: This goes back to the need for reporters to get off their asses and get back to talking to real people. Right now, there's too much emphasis on the talking heads, the focus on Wall Street. There's a colleague of mine -- I won't name names -- who'd advise reporters, "Don't bother those ordinary people -- the story is in the boardroom." I tell journalists to ignore that advice, take it to the street, do some real shoe-leather reporting. Take a look at the paperwork that people have been made to sign, look at how they've been coerced. Too may reporters want to focus on the sound bytes. Some are just lazy. But most have this default position where they're going to repeat the official line.
THE HUFFINGTON POST: How do you arm your students to go out and combat this?
MAHARIDGE: I tell them, three things make a great story: people, people, and people. By that I mean, real people. Go out and find the bottom of the food chain, because that is where most Americans live. The emphasis for the past 30 years has been the adoration of wealth, the celebritization of wealth. We're all rich. Everything's looking up. But, no. Most Americans are working poor. Four-fifths of us who work for salaries or wages make less than $20 an hour. This is a poor country. We're a nation of the working poor, and it's something that people don't want to acknowledge.
Telling the story from the "bottom of the food chain" is something that our own Arthur Delaney has been doing on the regular, which is one reason I notice the starkness in coverage all the time. If you follow the traditional news, you notice the pernicious effects. People are regularly allowed to contend that there's no such thing as predatory lending practices when, in fact, those practices are widespread. When a politician criticizes the nation's unemployed for being lazy, it's treated as a legitimate point of view on one side of a grand debate. The view from ground level is quite different -- Americans are flooding job fairs, striving and struggling, at a time when there is one job available for every five job-seekers. The media generally treats "health care rationing" as something that will come about if health care reform is passed. It takes a Natasha Vargas-Cooper to document the way health care rationing is already happening.
Meanwhile, here's the Wall Street Journal, keepin' it real!
It's not as easy to be rich as it used to be.
Once upon a time, America's most wealthy people barely felt the ups and downs of the economy. Over the past few decades, though, the roller-coaster ride has become more extreme for them than for any other income group, according to a new paper by two Northwestern University economists.
Of course, the worst of the worst when it comes to the way issues like poverty and crumbling infrastructure and massive unemployment are covered is found in the area of political reporting, where these matters take on no larger resonance beyond how they are affecting the campaign season horse race. Millions of Americans are unemployed! Well, who's up? Who's down? (Hint: It's the millions of unemployed Americans that are "down.")
Of course, this is not baseless -- once you factor in the historical forces that govern the way the electorate votes in off-year elections, it's the terrible economy that is going to be the primary factor in the way the country votes. But with the larger focus being placed on the fates of Washington elites -- will Incumbent X go from being a powerful legislator, or will he be forced to accept a life as a wealthy lobbyist or corporate board member?!? -- the coverage gets to the point where it's the politicians who get cast as the primary victims of poverty. The actual poor are just an abstract concept -- you know, like soldiers in a decade-long war or something!