For a Brief Moment, The Media Rediscover Poverty

For at least a few days in July, the nation's media paid attention to the plight of the 37 million Americans living in poverty. That's because presidential candidate John Edwards brought them to New Orleans, rural Kentucky and Mississippi, inner city Cleveland and other places on his three-day, eight-state 1800 mile poverty tour.

As a quick look at the Lexis/Nexis media database reveals, during and immediately after Edwards' poverty tour, every major U.S. daily newspaper, as well as the three leading news magazines, published at least one article on poverty. Many columnists and editorial writers, liberals and conservatives alike, used Edwards' tour as a take-off point to write about the issue.

Most reporters couldn't resist mentioning that despite his background as the son of a millworker, Edwards is now a millionaire who lives in a 28,000 square foot house in North Carolina. Nor can they seem to avoid poking fun at Edwards' biggest mistake during the campaign so far—the $400 haircut. Edwards is certainly correct that these topics are of more interest to reporters than to ordinary voters.

Few of the news stories mentioned that Edwards made his millions as a trial lawyer representing ordinary people against large corporations. And only a handful of stories pointed out that the two 20th century politicians most identified with helping the poor—Franklin Roosevelt and Bobby Kennedy—were born to great wealth. It isn't clear why Edwards' current wealth is important unless reporters think he's a politically-calculating hypocrite. Some conservative columnists make that claim, but most journalists seem to accept Edwards' sincerity. But few of the stories mentioned that none of the eight states on Edwards' poverty tour were among the key early primary states that will make or break his bid for the White House.

Many of the stories—including Eric Pooley's report in the July 18 issue of Time magazine—focused on the human side of poverty, and on the candidate's policy ideas. Although raising questions about Edwards' political chances, Pooley took seriously Edwards' commitment, his policy prescriptions, and his influence on his rivals' stances on the issues. Pooley even interviewed and profiled some of the low-income Americans that Edwards brought reporters to meet.

Other stories reflected journalistic cynicism, but none more so than Newsweek's misleading story ("The Down and Out Tour") in its July 30 issue. In the two-page, 12-paragraph, 1214-word spread, Newsweek did not include one word about what Edwards proposed to do about addressing the plight the poor, nor did the story quote or profile one poor person.

Newsweek reporter Jonathan Darman spent literally half the article (six paragraphs) comparing Edwards (unfavorably) to Bobby Kennedy, whose 1968 poverty tour, in the midst of his own presidential campaign, helped draw national attention to the issue. But the comparison had less to do with Kennedy's and Edwards' ideas for combatting poverty and more to do with their backgrounds, personalities and even their clothing. Darman thought that readers needed to know that Kennedy's "hair was wild and unkempt, his tie was eternally askew, his eyes were lined with crow's-feet from too many hours in the sun" while Edwards' "face is tan but unaged. his famous hair is not just well coiffed, it is nearly immobilie and lacks even a touch of gray." Darman meant this comparison to show that Kennedy could connect with the poor, while Edwards does not, although he offered no evidence.

Mostly, however, Darman sought to show that Edwards' focus on poverty in his presidential campaign won't succeed because American voters don't care about the poor, because the media aren't paying attention to the issue, and because poverty isn't as serious a problem as it was in 1968.

Darman wrote that "by the time the tour reached its halfway point, Edwards was barely making the national papers." According to Darman, Edwards' failure to ignite national outrage about poverty "speaks to the nation's inability to be moved." That's because, Darman speculated, "there are fewer distended bellies [of poor children facing starvation] in Edwards' America" than in Kennedy's and because "Today's middle class is driven by its own economic insecurity" and thus can't spare any sympathy for the poor. Edwards' call to eliminate poverty within a generation, Darman wrote, "sound like more empty promises from a politician."

Darman is wrong on all counts. Perhaps he didn't read a new report, "Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes: 1987-2007," from the reputable Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Had he done so, he would have learned that 69 percent of Americans—including 58 percent of Republicans—now believe that "government should care for those who can't care for themselves". Also, 69 percent of Americans—including 83 percent of Democrats, 71 percent of independents, and 47 percent of Republicans—believe that the government "should provide food and shelter for all." According to the Pew report, more than half of Americans—including 68 percent of Democrats, 57 percent of independents, and 34 percent of Republicans—believe that "government should help the needy even if it means greater debt". These are all significantly higher figures than during the mid-1990s.

Darman offered Newsweek readers nothing about what Edwards proposes to do about poverty or whether past efforts to address the issues have succeeded or failed.

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It is true that there is less poverty today than in 1968. Indeed, the nation's War on Poverty, which President Johnson launched in 1964, was making steady progress until it was detoured by the other war—in Vietnam.

In the early 1960s, progressives like Rev. Martin Luther King and United Auto Workers union president Walter Reuther advised Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to champion a bold federal program for full employment that would include government-funded public works and the conversion of the nation's defense industry to production for civilian needs. This, they argued, would dramatically address the nation's poverty population, create job opportunities for the poor and the near-poor (including blacks living in America's ghettos), and rebuild the nation's troubled cities without being as politically divisive as a federal program identified primarily as serving poor blacks. We often forget that the theme of 1963 March on Washington—at which King made hs famous "I Have a Dream" speech and which the UAW backed with both money and marchers—was "jobs and justice."

Johnson's announcement of an ''unconditional war on poverty'' in his 1964 State of the Union Address was, in reality, a patchwork of small initiatives that did not address the nation's basic inequalities. Testifying before Congress in April 1964, Reuther said that ''while [the proposals] are good, [they] are not adequate, nor will they be successful in achieving their purposes, except as we begin to look at the broader problems [of the American economy].'' He added that ''poverty is a reflection of our failure to achieve a more rational, more responsible, more equitable distribution of the abundance that is within our grasp.''

Despite these valid criticisms, the programs Johnson and Congress put in place in the 1960s bore fruit. In 1960, when Kennedy was elected, 22 percent of Americans lived below the official poverty line. By 1968, that number had dropped dramatically, to 12.8 percent—a result of a combination of general economic prosperity and anti-poverty policies like raising the minimum wage, public works jobs, job training programs, raising Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid. By 1973, the nation's poverty rate had fallen to 11.1 percent—an all-time low.

Unfortunately, the nation retreated from that agenda. The poverty rate climbed to 15.2 percent in 1983, hovered around 14 percent during the subsequent decade, and was 15.1 percent in 1993. The poverty rate declined slightly during the Clinton years—reaching 11.2 percent by 2000—but anti-poverty experts believe that Clinton missed a real opportunity to reduce poverty in the midst over growing prosperity. Since Bush took office, poverty has increased again; the number of poor Americans has grown by five million since 2000. In 2005 - the latest figures—37 million Americans, 12.6 percent of the population, live below the poverty line, now roughly $20,000 for a family of four.

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Edwards wants to raise the minimum wage to the poverty line (over $9/hour), significantly increase the Earned Income Tax Credit (a wage supplement for the working poor), enact the Employee Free Choice Act to strengthen America's labor laws and workers' right to unionize, create more public works jobs for those who cannot find work in the private sector, create a universal health insurance plan, and add a million housing vouchers. Polls show that these ideas are popular with American voters.

Starting in the 1980s, media coverage about the poor focused on welfare recipients. In his book, Why Americans Hate Welfare, political scientist Martin Gilens showed that during the 1980s, the mainstream media reinforced misleading negative stereotypes about the poor. Although the majority of poor Americans were (and are) white, media stories and photos disproportionately portrayed the poor as African American. It also gave much more prominence, in stories and photos, to the welfare poor than to the working. The so-called "deserving poor" - - the elderly and those with jobs—were typically portrayed as whites, whereas poor blacks appeared mostly in stories about welfare abuse or the underclass. These media stereotypes, Gilens concluded, had a profound impact on public opinion.

President Ronald Reagan played an important role in promoting these stereotypes. The "great communicator" used his rhetorical skills to stigmatize poor people as overly dependent on government hand-outs. Throughout his presidency, Reagan often told the story of a so-called welfare queen in Chicago who drove a Cadillac and had ripped off $150,000 from the government using 80 aliases, 30 addresses, a dozen Social Security cards and four fictional dead husbands. Journalists searched for this welfare cheat and discovered that she didn't exist. Nevertheless, he kept using the anecdote, and dutifully promised to roll back welfare. This laid the groundwork for slashing the social safety net (despite the fact that Reagan's own family had been rescued by New Deal anti-poverty programs during the Depression).

Reagan's bully pulpit, and the increasing success of right-wing think tanks and writers in dominating public discussion about poverty, led to a protracted political debate about welfare reform. Not surprisingly, during the 1990s, media attention on the poor focused on this debate, To show that he was a different kind of Democrat, Clinton campaigned in 1992 to "end welfare as we know it," in part by "making work pay." Since Congress enacted welfare reform in 1996, a growing number of the poor—particularly mothers with young children—have been pushed off welfare and into the workforce, or—if they can't find jobs—even deeper poverty.

Although liberals decried this approach, it did help shift public opinion about the poor and changed stereotypes about who lives in poverty. There is, in particular, growing public concern about the working poor, the fastest growing segment of the nation's poverty population. The popularity of Barbara Ehrenreich's best-selling book, Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, and the public's growing concern about the "Walmart-ization" of the economy (low-wage jobs with few benefits) reflects this changing sentiment.

For example, public opinion polls show that for years a vast majority of Americans have wanted to raise the federal minimum wage, which until this year had been stuck at $5.15 an hour since 1997-its lowest amount, in inflation-adjusted dollars, in more than 50 years. Last May, under growing public pressure, President Bush reluctantly signed a bill increasing the minimum wage to $7.25 over two years. That figure, however, is only about 40 percent of the average wage. Edward has called for gradually increasing the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by 2012 and—importantly—indexing it to inflation.

In response to grass-roots campaigns by unions and community organizations, more than 150 cities and counties have passed "living wage" laws since 1994, most of them in the past five years. Last November 2006, voters in six states-Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, and Ohio-approved measures to raise state minimum wage levels by $1 to $1.70 an hour and index them to inflation. In addition, the legislatures in another six states-California, Arkansas, Michigan, North Carolina, and Florida-raised their state minimum wage last year. As a result, 28 states and the District of Columbia have now passed legislation or approved ballot initiatives raising their state minimums above the federal minimum.

Support for labor unions has also reached its highest level in more than three decades, but unionization efforts have been stymied by federal laws hostile to workers rights and employers that spend millions of dollars intimidating workers who seek to unionize.

Polls also show that Americans are increasing concerned about the widening gap between the rich and everyone else. Thus, it makes sense for Edwards to link the concerns of the middle class and those of the poor. This does not divert public attention away from poverty, as Newsweek's Darman argues, but instead builds broader support for public policies that address the concerns of the poor and those of the economically insecure middle class, worried about their ability to buy a home, take a yearly vacation, save for retirement, and pay for college tuition and health insurance. (Between 2000 and 2005, the number of Americans without health insurance increased from 39.8 million [14.2 percent] to 46.6 million [15.9 percent]). A growing number of working families are in debt, while the number facing foreclosure has spiraled. American workers face declining job security as companies downsize, move overseas, and shift more jobs to part-time workers. The cost of housing, food, and other basic necessities is rising faster than incomes. Even two-income families have trouble trying to make ends meet.

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Few media stories point out that among the world's affluent nations (those in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—primarily Canada and Europe), the U.S. has the highest poverty rate (more than twice that of many European countries) and by far the widest gap between the rich and poor. It has taken Michael Moore's new film, "Sicko," to focus media attention on how other affluent nations—particularly France and Canada—do a better job of providing health care for their populations. There is a growing unease among Americans that their economic security and well-being are deteriorating—but the mainstream media generally resists providing a clear understanding of whether these trends are reversible, or whether there are lessons to be learned from other countries that may do things differently and, in some cases, better.

Now, however, the media are starting to pay attention to the wider issues of poverty and inequality. Darman's contention in his Newsweek article that the press has ignored Edwards' focus on poverty throughout his campaign, including the recent anti-poverty tour, is simply not true. Even before Edwards' poverty tour, his campaign's focus on the disadvantaged has triggered renewed interest in the topic among the mainstream media and the increasingly important blogosphere.

Most prominently, the New York Times devoted its entire June 10 Sunday magazine to articles about inequality and poverty. The issue included an article on a Service Employees International Union organizing campaign, another on global poverty, another on the role on class and schools, and one on widening economic equality. Its cover story was about Edwards. It focused on his work over the past three years to study poverty at his University of North Carolina think tank and draw attention to the issue.

Since 2004, when John Kerry lost the presidential race with Edwards as his running mate, the former senator has been crisscrossing the country speaking at union rallies, joining picket lines and campaigns to raise the minimum wage, and visiting homeless shelters, low-income housing developments and emergency food banks. This is hardly the typical path to the White House.

Indeed, Edwards' crusade has, perhaps more than any other factor, put the poverty issue back on the national agenda. A few days after Edwards' tour, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., made a major speech on poverty. As the presidential campaign evolves, other candidates will be forced to tell America what, if anything, they plan to do about poverty. Even those who disagree with Edwards' progressive views are at least engaging in a debate about what the U.S. should do about so much poverty and economic insecurity in the midst of so much affluence. Even if Edwards' doesn't capture the Democratic nomination or the White House, that alone is an important victory.

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