Writing and speaking about poverty

by | Aug 8, 2015 | Justice and Peace, News | 1 comment

Voice poor square
Two posts concerning writing and speaking about poverty caught my eye. So much depends upon where you stand.

The first piece by well-known author Barbara Ehrenreich laments the fact that only the moderately well-to-do can afford to write about poverty.

The second piece, by Phylis Zagano, speaks of the difficulty for the moderately well off to understand what Pope Francis is talking about when he speaks of poverty.

1. Barbara Ehrenreich: In America, Only the Rich Can Afford to Write About Poverty(Alternet, originally from the Guardian)

Her point…. A relatively affluent person can afford to write about minimum wage jobs. Yet people experiencing poverty can’t.

This impoverishment of journalists impoverishes journalism. We come to find less and less in the media about the working poor, as if about 15% of the population quietly emigrated while we weren’t looking.

Media outlets traditionally neglected stories about the downtrodden because they don’t sit well on the same page with advertisements for diamonds and luxury homes. And now there are fewer journalists on hand at major publications to arouse the conscience of editors and other gatekeepers. Coverage of poverty accounts forless than 1% of American news, or, as former Times columnist Bob Herbert has put it: “We don’t have coverage of poverty in this country. If there is a story about poor people in the New York Times or in the Washington Post, that’s the exception that proves the rule. We do not cover poverty. We do not cover the poor.”

As for commentary about poverty – a disproportionate share of which issues from very well paid, established, columnists like David Brooks of the New York Times and George Will of the Washington Post – all too often, it tends to reflect the historical biases of economic elites, that the poor are different than “we” are, less educated, intelligent, self-disciplined and more inclined to make “bad lifestyle choices.” If the pundits sometimes sound like the current Republican presidential candidates, this is not because there is a political conspiracy afoot. It’s just what happens when the people who get to opine about inequality are drawn almost entirely from the top of the income distribution. And there have been few efforts focused on journalism about poverty and inequality, or aimed at supporting journalists who are themselves poor.

It hurts the poor and the economically precarious when they can’t see themselves reflected in the collective mirror that is the media. They begin to feel that they are different and somehow unworthy compared to the “mainstream.” But it also potentially hurts the rich.

In a highly polarized society like our own, the wealthy have a special stake in keeping honest journalism about class and inequality alive. Burying an aching social problem does not solve it. The rich and their philanthropies need to step up and support struggling journalists and the slender projects that try to keep them going. As a self-proclaimed member of the 0.01% warned other members of his class last year: “If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us.”

2. Phyllis Zagano:The Pope and Poverty (National Catholic Reporter).

Here, the author points out that people who are relatively well-off have little experience of what being poor really is about.

So, when Francis talks about the poor, most of the people who hear him have no idea what he is talking about. Most of the people who hear him are, relatively speaking, rich.

Here are the numbers: half of the world lives on less than $2.50 a day. That is 3 billion people. Now, maybe in the poorest areas of the world — the favelas of Brazil, the jungle villages of Africa, the city edges of India, the seaside settlements of Malaysia and the Philippines — you can manage on that scale of economy. But think of what $2.50 a day allows for and what it eliminates.

People in what they call developed nations have access to all manner of things the truly poor would never dream of. There are department stores and supermarkets and delicatessens. There are planes and trains and busses and cars. There are hospitals and clinics and pharmacies. There are universities and high schools and continuing education programs. There is clean water, clean land, and clean air.

Most of us reading this column, myself included, cannot fathom life without these things. From time to time, one or another is out of reach. Most of the time, it’s all just around the corner.

Will the people now turning away because they fear Francis’ condemning capitalism be able to recognize that he, like popes before him, criticizes the excesses and the evils of capitalism, not the system itself? Will the people now turning away because they are, as one conservative pundit put it, tired of being “scolded,” recognize that Francis, like St. Ignatius before him, pointed out that all is gift?

Worthwhile reads.

1 Comment

  1. Pat Collins

    The situation between the haves and the have nots will always remain. To speak and write effectively about poverty, one must go amongst the poor to really feel their pain and be moved to act on their behalf. They are voiceless. They are marginalized. We all should live simply. (avoid excesses) so that others can simply live.

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