Who Gets to Tell Stories About Poverty?

Who Gets to Tell Stories About Poverty?

The Economic Hardship Reporting Project is redefining how we cover inequality.

November 14, 2018

This article appears in the Fall 2018 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

It should not be all that difficult to report on economic inequality. It’s a fixture, after all, of modern American life. And yet, the journalism industry, charged with analyzing and conveying news of wage stagnation, persistent poverty, and downward mobility, has itself crumbled alongside much of the middle class. Over the past several decades, more and more journalists have been laid off, while the rates paid freelancers have fallen, too.

As the chasm of inequality has only continued to grow, the very journalists who cover it have not always been able to escape it.

In 2012, when the country was still reeling from the economic recession and when reporting about inequality was needed perhaps more than ever, author Barbara Ehrenreich started the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (EHRP). The idea was to change the media landscape, and support reporters—by then, many low-income and working-class themselves—writing about poverty and inequality.

“Most mainstream editors and gatekeepers are not people of very vast and diverse social experience,” says Ehrenreich. “They don’t know people different from themselves—they don’t know working-class people and poor people.” Stories about inequality and poverty that convey a deep familiarity with the people affected by it are few and far between.

As tabloid journalism—often written by and for the working class—began to disappear by the mid-20th century, mainstream journalism tended to skew upper-middle-class, white, and male. Today, people who grow up poor can find it difficult to break into journalism, particularly as the industry tends to offer unpaid or low-paid internships to those just starting out. People of color face particularly significant obstacles to entering journalism, especially those from the working class. And these trends have only been exacerbated as journalism jobs have come to pay less and less, or totally dry up.

EHRP is modeling a different path: supporting quality journalism about inequality while paying its writers what amounts to a living wage. Since its founding, EHRP has published more stories each year, in an increasingly diverse range of outlets. In 2017 alone, it published 118 stories, up from 101 in 2016.

At least a quarter of the pieces that EHRP publishes come from writers who’ve been no strangers to poverty. Darryl Wellington, a freelancer who works with EHRP, once sold his blood plasma to get by, and then wrote about how the plasma industry exploits the poor. Other EHRP contributors have experienced homelessness or could write from personal knowledge about the experience of being on public assistance. Some, like Donnell Alexander, could detail what it was like to be hungry, and the stark difference between the empty-calorie food available in low-income food deserts and what’s found in health-food stores.

Politics & Prose

Barbara Ehrenreich and Alissa Quart talk inequality at a bookstore in Washington, D.C.

“We felt like these were stories that had to get out, told in the voice of these people,” says Alissa Quart, who has been the executive editor of EHRP since 2014. “But they were also reporters ... [and] they had the skills and professional experience to report.”

One of those writers was Stephanie Land. After working her way through college as a single mother, and leaving with an English degree and a boatload of debt, Land dove into freelance writing to make a living. She had experienced homelessness, and had tried to find stability through government assistance. Land quickly discovered that by writing about her own experiences of poverty, she found “a niche that people were really craving. A lot of the times when people are writing about poverty,” she says, “they’re writing about a family that they’ve hung out with a few hours and their take on what their lives are like. Whereas I [was] able to come out and say, ‘This is what my life is like.’”

Then Land read a Guardian article by Ehrenreich called “In America, Only the Rich Can Afford to Write About Poverty,” which introduced her to EHRP for the first time. For Land, “It was one of those things that you read and it’s a wallop on your head—I thought, ‘Oh my god, I need to get involved in this.’”

She pitched her first piece to EHRP, and it was accepted. EHRPco-publishes pieces with traditional outlets, meaning that editors at EHRP edit and prepare a work for publication before they pitch it to a newspaper or magazine to print. EHRP works with numerous media outlets, among them The Guardian and The New York Times, as well as the Prospect.

Writers are paid the regular going rate at the outlet, as well as an additional rate from EHRP—which is meant to come to what journalists used to be paid. Though Land’s first piece was published in an outlet that doesn’t always pay, EHRPpaid Land a dollar per word. (Non-journalists please note: That’s substantial.) That price, she says, “made me feel way more professional as a journalist—and it made me feel like I could hold my own in that world.”

 

THE ROOM IS PACKED at Politics and Prose, a bookstore in Washington, D.C. Both Quart and Ehrenreich are here to promote Quart’s new book, Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America. Ehrenreich says that much of Quart’s new book on economic insecurity came out of a discussion at EHRP. If Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimedchanged the conversation about poverty-wage jobs nearly 20 years ago, Squeezed, which Library Journaldescribed as “reminiscent” of Ehrenreich’s book, explains the financial insecurities not only of the poor, but also of a middle class precariously balanced on the edge.

Seated next to each other at the bookshop, divided by a generation, Ehrenreich and Quart clearly have an easy rapport, with jokes peppered into their conversation. “I can read if people want me to read,” Quart says. “I think you can talk as well as you can read—I think you talk pretty well,” Ehrenreich replies.

“Thanks, Mom,” Quart says.

A major theme of Quart’s book is that the poorer working class and the unstable middle class, groups that she refers to as the “lower precariat” and the “middle precariat,” exist on the same continuum of class disparity. Squeezed tells the story of the nanny, but it also tells the story of the middle-class parents who can barely afford child care. It describes the schoolteacher who moonlights as an Uber driver, as well as the adjunct professor who is on food stamps.

Bridging the divide between these two groups is the very point—the political point—of her book, Quart says. “If you can name it as a class problem rather than your problem, then you’ll recognize the similarity that you might have to others.”

This is evident in a piece that Ehrenreich and Quart co-authored for The New York Review of Books about the #MeToo movement. #MeToo, they wrote, could be an opportunity for wealthier women—like wealthy actresses in the entertainment industry—to ally themselves with working-class women. “Affluent women,” they wrote, “can use their privilege to help strengthen the movement among working-class women ... but only if they manage to put their resources to good use.”

One can see much of this same thinking—the possibility of cross-class solidarity—embedded in the operation of EHRP. The organization works not only with working-class journalists, but also with journalists who may have limited means because of the frequently underpaid nature of the work that they do. Journalism may be a white-collar profession, but it doesn’t always pay like one (though increasingly, as documented in Squeezed, more and more white-collar jobs no longer cover the cost of living).

As Quart explains, EHRP works with “a gradient of journalists who need to get a grant in order to write a really good story—and journalists who need to get a grant in order to pay their rent.” In this way, the continuum that Quart writes about in Squeezed is often personified by the writers who work with EHRP. When they write about economic lives on the margin, it’s almost like the Droste effect, a photo within a photo.

EHRP makes sure that the pieces it sponsors convey, says Quart, the “complexity and politics” outside of the gripping story. But that gripping story is the indispensable starting point. “You have to tell stories that are a little more dynamic,” says Quart. “In a weird way, it kind of starts to hook in people’s hunger for stories about dystopia … but you’re giving them real dystopia.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

A father and daughter walk past a mural reading "We accept food stamps" on in Harvey, Illinois. 

After all, poverty itself is somewhat apocalyptic—limited food, limited health care, and limited everything describes both being poor and the end times. Writer Melissa Chadburn, a contributing editor at EHRP and editor-at-large for DAME magazine, recently wrote about hunger for EHRP, in a piece published in The New York Review of Books. A sampling of lines from the article:

“When the lights went out in our apartment and so did the electric stove, we lived on saltines with peanut butter and beans from a can.”

“We lived as people without money do, with a sense of impending doom that everything as we knew it could end at any time.”

It’s The Road, or it’s somebody’s every day in America.

“We always have to be fresh, surprising, challenging,” says Ehrenreich. Or people just won’t care is the thought she leaves unsaid.

 

IT’S NOT JUST words. EHRP also supports photography, film, and even cartoons. A recent multimedia piece supported by EHRP and published by Longreads, written by Erynn Brook and illustrated by Emily Flake, explains “the difference between being broke and being poor.” Brook’s words are accompanied by Flake’s watercolor illustrations, including those of a woman at the grocery store trying to do math in her head, and a small figure on a tightrope stretched between two dollar signs.

The nonprofit has an impressive—and long—list of publications that it’s worked with, but they’re not all news, politics, and policy publications. EHRP has also supported pieces published by the likes of CosmopolitanEveryday Health, and National Geographic—outlets that might not typically see reporting on economic instability. Quart calls this “culture jamming,” a way to “change the bloodstream in mainstream media.” A recent example was a piece by journalist Joseph Williams describing his own eviction that ran in Curbed, a real-estate news site. Land has published in Refinery29, a women’s lifestyle website.

Getting writing about inequality in front of as many people as possible—culture jamming—could help lead to Quart’s idea of a more connected “continuum” of the exploited working and middle classes. The challenge EHRP tries to address, says Quart, is “How do we reach these readers who might not be reading The American Prospect and The Nation?”

 

CLASS HASN’T BEEN ignored by the mainstream media, and particularly not during the past few years, as wages have remained stubbornly stagnant and the media have sought to explain the rise of Trump. Those explanations have usually centered on the politics of the white working class (which became the shorthand for “white, mostly rural, poor people”). Reporters traveled to Appalachia, the Rust Belt, and the South to talk to the locals chiefly about Trump, and less about other issues affecting their lives.

Ehrenreich says that after the election, she herself “had a mini-boom in media attention.” Reporters called her—a journalist who writes about class, not a working-class person—asking: “Who are these people, Barbara? You know about them! Tell us about them!”

The typical parachute reporting “horribly exposed the class fissures in America and the ignorance about class,” says Ehrenreich. She adds that “the mainstream media tends to represent upper-class views and the views of the educated middle class, which often has a great deal of contempt for the white working class—more so for people of color in the working class.”

Reporters who work with EHRP documented this phenomenon. Journalist Sarah Smarsh has written about how working-class people were a scapegoat who could be safely blamed for the election of Trump, while the media ignored the middle-class white people in affluent suburbs who voted for him. In a piece co-published with EHRP and The Guardian shortly after the election, Smarsh wrote about how there is “historic wealth inequality in America, and the journalism industry reflects it like any other.”

But the very success of EHRP may signal that mainstream media’s coverage of inequality is shifting, and has been shifting over the past several years. Indeed, the Occupy movement, which occurred one year before EHRP’s inception, introduced the language of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent, a framing that is still commonly used today. And the Great Recession and its after-effects, plus ever-widening income inequality, are now impossible for newsrooms to ignore. It’s not as if the “inequality beat” is necessarily widespread—but EHRP’s growing influence is a positive sign.

EHRP works to expand not only the class diversity among journalists, says Quart, but geographical diversity as well.

An overwhelming 73 percent of journalism jobs are now located on either coast, meaning barely more than a quarter of reporting jobs are located in the rest of the country. Part of the reason for this is that many local newspapers have been shuttered since the turn of the century. In order to help correct the imbalance, EHRP has created the On the Ground reporting project in partnership with The Guardian, devoted to covering underreported parts of the United States. Its reporters write about their own communities. A recent article by Michael Graff, reporting from Belhaven, North Carolina, profiles the reaction of this rural town when the local hospital up and closed—something that keeps happening in rural, often poor areas, leaving residents without nearby or emergency health care.

 

AP Photo/David Goldman

A man sits on a street corner along the main business district on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Montana. 

THERE ARE OTHER ways, too, that EHRPis tackling the intersection of inequality and journalism. After The Denver Post’s New York-based private equity owners laid off much of the newsroom, and when DNAinfo and Gothamist were closed down by billionaire owner Joe Ricketts right after employees voted to unionize, EHRPstarted funds for the affected journalists, taking pitches from and providing grant money to those journalists for their projects. So far, they’ve given out about $4,000 to former Denver Postreporters and about $8,000 to those who worked with DNAinfo.

EHRP did the same this summer, when Tronc, the Chicago-based media company, announced it was cutting half of the editorial staff at the New York Daily News. The organization has established a $10,000 fund to enable laid-off Daily News reporters and photographers to cover stories about inequality.

EHRP would like to expand these funds, says Quart, creating something like an “emergency fund” for journalists to use if their laptop crashes or if they need a last-minute flight or hotel for a reporting project.

In a time when employees at digital media outlets and such historically non-union publications as the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune are joining unions and winning contracts, Quart says that she sees EHRP as a sort of “alt-labor”—an alternative labor organization, for journalists who don’t have access to traditional unions since they are not always employees. EHRPcan partially step into that breach by ensuring that they will be fairly paid when they publish EHRP-sponsored articles.

Quart says she can hear “echoes of [the EHRP] project in other nonprofits.” More organizations now publish writers who provide first-person accounts of living in poverty and stories that center on economic inequality, among them the Center for Community Change’s Safety Net Communications Fellows and the writers with TalkPoverty.org. In addition, the California-based media nonprofit Capital & Main, like EHRP, co-publishes work on poverty and inequality, and has supported some of EHRP’s journalists as well.

 

THE BACKING THAT EHRP Provides the journalists it works with can help them move forward with their individual careers. Land, now a contributing editor at EHRP, recently framed her 2016 New York Timesessay on the class politics of decluttering, and hung it in her hallway. The folks at EHRP “helped immensely,” she says, with securing her book deal—EHRP staff helped her polish her book proposal. Land’s forthcoming memoir, MAID, tells the story of how Land worked as a housekeeper through college to take care of herself and her family.

Ehrenreich wrote the foreword to the book, a portion of which Land read out loud to me.

“I met [Land] years ago when she was in the early stages of her writing career,” Ehrenreich writes. “[She] sent us a query, and we snatched her up, working with her to develop pitches, polish drafts, and place them in the best outlets we could find.

“[Land] is exactly the kind of person we exist for—an unknown working-class writer who needed just a nudge to launch her career.”      

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