Shining a Light on the Politics of Poverty

Good journalism is essential to highlighting the plight of those the American economy leaves behind.

By SHARE
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"She shares a crowded, mouse-infested room with her parents and seven siblings, who sleep doubled up on torn mattresses."

That room in the decrepit Auburn Family Residence, a shelter for homeless New Yorkers, is where we first meet Dasani, the subject of Andrea Elliott's masterful profile published Monday in The New York Times. In "Invisible Child," Elliott follows the energetic 11 year old as she navigates hunger and homelessness, an ordeal Dasani shares with more than 22,000 other children in New York City.

Elliott is not the only one concerned with the economically vulnerable: both the Pope and the president grabbed headlines in recent days with their remarks on income inequality. Yet if history is any guide, Elliott and Dasani will have a far greater impact on the politics of poverty than either one of them.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Journalists have been the advance guard of poverty politics for more than a century. In 1890, Jacob Riis depicted the lives of the tenants of New York's cramped tenements in "How the Other Half Live." The book coupled striking photographs with detailed stories of the city's poor. After its publication, Riis hit the lecture circuit, calling middle-class reformers to action.  

Riis and his fellow muckrakers transformed turn-of-the-century American politics. In an era when a famous preacher exhorted, "No man in this land suffers from poverty unless it be more than his fault – unless it be his sin," muckrakers countered with sympathetic portraits of the poor. Their depictions of the structural causes of poverty helped ignite an era of reform that, while not without its flaws, legitimized a role for government in easing poverty.  

Journalists played a similar role in the "rediscovery of poverty" in the early 1960s. At the height of the Cold War, abundance – and an absence of poverty – were a key component of the pro-capitalism argument. In Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev's famous "kitchen debate" in 1959, the leaders sparred not over political freedoms but standards of living. American affluence, Nixon argued, was evidence of American superiority. It was a position that left no room for the country's poor.

Yet journalists soon began calling attention to the persistence of poverty in an affluent society. Edward R. Murrow's 1960 television documentary "Harvest of Shame" highlighted the plight of "the forgotten people, the under-protected, the undereducated, the under-clothed, the underfed." Airing the day after Thanksgiving, a holiday celebrating abundance, the report on impoverished migrant workers aimed to "shock the consciousness of the nation."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the European debt crisis.]

Murrow's efforts received reinforcements two years later with the publication of "The Other America." In it, Michael Harrington detailed the country's "economic underworld," the 40-50 million Americans living in poverty who were "increasingly slipping out of the very experience and consciousness of the nation." His work inspired President Kennedy to look into the problem of poverty, a project Lyndon Johnson dramatically expanded when he took office. In his first State of the Union in 1964, Johnson declared "an unconditional war on poverty in America." And he appointed Harrington to help draw up the battle plans.

"Invisible Child" builds upon this legacy. It comes at a critical time in America's economic recovery. Poverty programs have already absorbed the double blow of austerity and sequestration. In recent months Republican lawmakers have moved to slash food stamps, which over the past fifty years have eased hunger for millions of low-income Americans. And with the Dow rocketing above 16,000 and the unemployment rate dipping to 7 percent, the economically vulnerable risk slipping off the public's radar.

Which is why journalists are so vital to the politics of poverty: The poor are almost always hidden from view. Indeed, that has been the central theme of a century of reporting on poverty. Riis and Harrington talked about the poor as "the other half" and "the other America," Murrow as "the forgotten people." The New Yorker called its 1963 review of Harrington's book "Our Invisible Poor," an idea Elliott echoes in her title "Invisible Child." "Children," Elliott writes, "are not the face of New York's homeless. … Their homelessness is hidden." In giving childhood poverty a face – and an unforgettable name – Elliott may just make poverty a visible part of national politics once again. 

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