The media is waking up to poverty and inequality


I hope you folks had a joyous holiday. I’m on the road right now, and otherwise still enmeshed with end-of-the-semester schoolwork. Yet this caught my attention and I thought the subject worth a quick post. (h/t Rebecca Vallas)

Earlier this week the New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan highlighted a shift in the paper’s coverage of inequality and poverty — especially within the city itself. She notes an earlier Times piece covering the struggle of local food pantries trying to accommodate an increase in demand for assistance in the wake of recent SNAP (food stamp) cuts.

Sullivan (emphasis mine):

Mr. McGeehan’s interviews with city residents at a Brooklyn food pantry gave the article emotional resonance and power.

After hearing from readers on this topic, I wrote a column in June about poverty coverage in The Times. I found it to be paradoxical: The quality is excellent, but the coverage, including that of hunger in The Times’s own city, could be more regular and sustained. The response to the column was strong – this clearly is something readers care deeply about.

They should.

There are over 1.6 million New Yorkers living under the poverty level. According the most recent Census data (PDF), there are over 300 thousand families in the city under that level, and the percent of individuals living in poverty stands at 19.4 percent. New York’s poverty trends mirror the nation at large. Between 2000 and 2010 the number of people living below the poverty line increased by nearly 13 million. The percentage for black and Hispanic Americans are especially stark; 27 and 26 respectively (see Tables 721 and 723 here). These measurements are notably imprecise, not including non-cash benefits, but even by alternative measures the picture is still dismal.

The public shift from the Times is, at once, encouraging and frustrating.  The latter should be apparent because this isn’t a new story — in many important ways we’ve already been through more than a lost decade now. Speaking to the former; poverty and inequality has become so prevalent it’s difficult for the Grey Lady to dismiss, and no doubt the election of Bill de Blasio makes it easier to justify coverage.

Having recently researched some on the marginalized in New York City I see this new focus as particularly noteworthy, and, tentatively, hopeful. The media as a social institution presumes elite concerns as broadly applicable until proven otherwise, but that bias encounters issues of scale when the poor (especially the urban poor) grows too large in number to remain comfortably invisible. Combine this notice with the establishment of a brand new think tank and, well, you know they’re starting to pay attention.


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