Mariana Garces

Media Not Concerned About the Very Poor

"All this talk today about poverty got us wondering just how many people in America live below the poverty line,” anchor Scott Pelley announced on the CBS Evening News (2/1/12). By “all this talk,” Pelley was referring to less than 200 words, in a report CBS had just aired on GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s missteps, that discussed Romney’s remark that he wasn’t “concerned about the very poor.” 

Though the brief story was actually about the political horse race, it apparently struck Pelley as an unusual amount of focus on poverty. And, sadly, he was right.

Poverty as an issue is nearly invisible in U.S. media coverage of the 2012 election, a new FAIR study has found—even though what candidates plan to do about an alarmingly growing poverty rate would seem to be a ripe topic for discussion in campaign coverage. 

Even before the economic downturn made the poverty picture significantly worse in the United States, the Urban Institute reported that half of all Americans (51 percent) experience poverty at some time before age 65 (Urban Institute, 9/10/09). 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 report (9/11), poverty in 2010 was at a 19-year high, affecting 46 million people, or 15.1 percent of the population. That’s up sharply from 11.3 percent in 2000, and 12.5 percent in 2007. And several groups feel the effects of poverty at a much higher rate than the national average. According to the 2011 census, more than one in five children (22 percent) live in poverty, as do more than a quarter of all blacks (27 percent) and Latinos (26 percent). A 2011 Brookings Institution study (9/13/11) predicted that as many as 10 million additional Americans will join the ranks of the poor by 2014. 

The Census Bureau counts a single person under 65 as being in poverty if they make less than $11,702; for a family of four, the cut-off is $22,314 a year. These thresholds—calculated since the 1960s simply by multiplying estimated food costs by three—have been criticized for failing to account for the increased costs of necessities like housing, transportation and childcare, so the official poverty rates may grossly understate the number of families actually living in poverty. The National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University (6/08), for example, estimates that “families typically need an income of at least twice the official poverty level ($42,400 for a family of four) to meet basic needs.”

A recent AP report (7/23/12) summarized the dire predictions of economists, academics and think tanks about poverty’s current trajectory: “The ranks of America’s poor are on track to climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century, erasing gains from the war on poverty in the 1960s amid a weak economy and fraying government safety net.”

To see how this crisis is addressed in coverage of the 2012 presidential election, Extra! looked at six months of campaign coverage (1/1/12–6/23/12) by eight prominent news outlets: CBS Evening News, ABC World News, NBC Nightly News, PBS NewsHour and NPR’s All Things Considered, and the print editions of the New York TimesWashington Post and Newsweek. Using the Nexis news database, the study counted campaign-related stories, both news reports and commentary, that were substantively about poverty (i.e., mentioning causes, referring to proposed solutions and so forth), as well as campaign stories that mentioned poverty in passing or less substantial ways. 

Substantive mentions of the issue included stories like Jia Lynn Yang’s informative news article in the Washington Post (4/14/12), which addressed the presidential candidates’ policies toward the poor. Yang reported on Romney’s and Obama’s fundamentally different proposals for how drastic income inequality might be alleviated, but also noted that both candidates tend to court the middle class above all else. 

Stories not counted as substantive coverage included largely reactive reports about candidates’ “gaffes” or campaign speeches, like the ABC World News story (4/3/12) reporting Romney’s soundbite: “I go across the country and I’m talking to single moms, for instance, 30 percent of single moms are living in poverty now under this president.” Rather than prompting further analysis of the issue of female poverty, the soundbite merely served to illustrate how both candidates are fighting to win over the “key group” of women voters. 

New York Times editorial (2/2/12) that reacted to Romney’s statement about not being concerned about the “very poor,” however, was counted as substantive, because it put the remark in the context of poverty numbers and offered an argument about the impact of Romney’s policy proposals:

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