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BR contributor Jina Moore’s October 7, 2012 Christian Science Monitor story, “Below the Line: Poverty in America,” is full of remarkable reporting. Moore visited Wheeling, West Virginia, a city that has struggled with population decline and the collapse of heavy industry, to learn about the lives underlying official poverty statistics. The article received the Sidney Hillman Foundation’s monthly Sidney award for an “outstanding piece of socially conscious journalism.” Managing Editor Simon Waxman spoke to her via email about how she reports and writes about poverty.
SW: In your story, you focus heavily on personal experiences of people whom the government considers, or once considered, poor. Those experiences don’t always look like what we might expect—homelessness, food pantries, persistent unemployment. In addition to those, there are Playstations, productive small farms, and well-kept lawns. Were you surprised by this incongruence?
JM: Not really. I grew up in Triadelphia, West Virginia going to school with some kids from the poor part of town who looked just like everyone else (and some middle-class kids from houses with really unkempt lawns). But I also believe something usually borne out in my reporting: that there’s always an incongruence between what we think we understand and what's really there.
It’s interesting that the expectations of poverty you identify are public and performative—you are poor by going to a food pantry or a homeless shelter, or by being publicly categorized by the Department of Labor as an unemployment statistic. The surprises you identify are from people’s private lives. Any time journalism has a chance to understand people as they are in their private lives, as fully formed people, it’s going to surprise those of us who only know the public version of things.
SW: Why are these personal stories important to discussions of poverty—at the dinner table or in Congress?
JM: Stories complicate our tendency to assume we understand things and people before we’ve given them genuine curiosity. They complicate our tendency to jump to conclusions. In my article, I rely a good deal on the gap between our typical imagination of poverty and the kind of poverty most people are living in this country. There were many more stories we could have published. The stories resonate because they are real people articulating the contours and constraints of their lives, and it turns out we don’t get a chance to listen to a lot of real people so deeply in the media. And certainly not, I would imagine, in the bubble of the Beltway.
SW: Especially since the start of the Occupy movement, there has been a constant debate over inequality and whether it matters to people’s economic lives. In reporting this story, did you gain any insights on the importance of relative vs. absolute poverty?
JM: It’s too bad the debate is only about whether it matters to people’s economic lives. Potentially, it also matters to people’s education, their vision of the future, their social networks, from which we usually draw our life partners—all factors that affect a person’s self-actualization. For all the debate in this country over which ideology or philosophy allows people the freedom to achieve the best versions of themselves, we submit to an awfully narrow understanding of how we can self-actualize when we focus only on their economic lives.
That said, two things seem pretty clear to me: from a policy or political perspective, there’s no agreement about how absolutely bad absolute poverty has to be before it “counts” as poverty. From a lived-life perspective, what researchers call “relative poverty” is all there is. Officially, $11,000 makes a household of one poor everywhere in the country—but that $11,000 goes a lot farther in Dallas Pike, West Virginia, than it does in DUMBO, in Brooklyn. “Absolute poverty” is an abstract idea. My absolute poverty is absolutely an even greater strain in, say, Chicago than in Clarksburg, West Virginia.
SW: Your subjects demonstrate a lot of need, but also a lot of ingenuity. In broad strokes, liberals tend to focus on the former, while conservatives are highly invested the latter. Might this be grounds for compromise on government’s role in helping the poor?
JM: Your question assumes a lot more optimism about politicians’ willingness to make policy for the good of the American people, and not for the next campaign commercial, than I am willing, at this point in our collective political life, to give them.
SW: Did the people under the poverty line whom you spoke to have any suggestions for improving the welfare state?
JM: I’m not sure they’d love the term welfare state. But there was definitely a consensus that help ends too abruptly. What I heard from people is that the social-assistance experience is like being stuck in a canyon and climbing your way back to the top, only to find your very last step has thrown you over the cliff again. This wasn’t a plea for lifelong food stamps; it was saying that if the assistance is cut back too severely, too quickly, then you just end up back there again, which is a situation the people I talked with weren’t interested in.
I went to a town hall meeting for a West Virginia gubernatorial candidate. When I brought up the issue of government help, the candidate said maybe you should just hand people cash and let them figure it out. “When you were younger, you had an allowance,” was his idea. And several people in the room mumbled, “Yeah, and you had to work for it.” But it seemed to me that the only person who doesn’t want full-time, low-wage worker Missy Nash on the dole any more than those guys is Missy Nash.
SW: As inadequate as poverty measures may be, one could argue that there’s democratic promise in the idea of helping people in need because that's what the numbers say—without regard to merit and blame, which some people think of as moral categories. Do you think we could salvage that promise with better metrics, or do we need a fundamentally different approach, perhaps based in the sort of ethnographic narratives you’ve written?
JM: The first thing to say is that I’m not sure merit or blame are “moral” categories. The second thing is that the poverty numbers have never been about merit or blame. They’re just numbers. When they’re interpreted, they’re vulnerable, as any numbers are, to affective filters. I think what you’re getting at is the kind of stuff we all hear but seems impolite to repeat—that poor people are poor because they’re lazy, or wealthy people are wealthy because they deserve it, because they worked hard. These are hard-hewn frames by which we tell the story of ourselves, of America. Or by which some of us do—I doubt, for example, that the Cherokee Nation’s story of America includes a preoccupation with whether the poor “earned it” or not.
So I think the job of ethnographic narratives (I’ll gladly take your compliment) is to test those hard-hewn frames, like a scientist holding up a hypothesis. Are the stories we tell ourselves true? Are they borne out, not only in the numbers but in the lives those numbers claim to represent? What exists outside of those frames? The beauty of a narrative is that it doesn’t demand a single, exclusive answer to these questions. It only demands that we ask them honestly and experience the results humbly enough to be surprised about the bits we didn’t already (assume we) know.
SW: In your BR article “The White Correspondent’s Burden,” you write, “Being an object of compassion is not the same thing as being the subject of a story.” When you write about poverty, or indeed any topic, how do you ensure that you’re not objectifying a subject? Is it mostly a matter of conveying the subject’s own words and observations, or is there more to it?
JM: This is such a hard question because so much of this is in the blank space. It’s about your posture in reporting; it’s about the kinds of questions you ask; and it’s about the way you choose to reveal someone on the page. Much of that work isn’t easily transparent. It’s not about how many quotes you use, whether you have as many details about ordinary life as you do about horror—it’s more molecular.
I’m not sure that using more of their own words than your own is the trick. If I lead a piece with, “Chanel was fifteen when she was raped” and then I go on to quote her for 250 words talking about her rape, and then I say, “Rape is a big problem in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” and then I quote a bunch of statistics and experts—that’s probably objectifying. All I’ve asked her to do is to talk about a horror, and I have used her quote to lend a kind of authenticity to the topic for my reader. But if I write a different kind of story . . .
Let’s say you meet Chanel in her classroom. Or maybe she doesn’t go to school, maybe you meet her at home, caring for younger siblings or cousins. Or maybe you meet her at a hospital, where she’s learning how to sew, in one of these skills-for-survivors programs. You meet her in any other way than as a victim of rape, and go to the reportorial trouble of learning what her average day is like, and then writing that. If we know Chanel as a person before we hear her talk about her rape, the result is probably going to be less objectifying.
I’m talking in hypotheticals, so I’m using the conditional. I believe very strongly that writers reveal themselves on the page, whether they intend to or not. (I wrote about this at length in a Columbia Journalism Review essay on earning readers’ trust when writing about rape.)
Journalism generally doesn’t acknowledge this. Here’s the easiest example of what I mean: newswire journalism is set up in blatant (delusional) denial about this, and yet even newswire writers reveal themselves as someone on the page. They reveal themselves as people subsumed by a news mission: their job is to mimic the same voice, to follow the same general story format, and to collect certain kinds of information and deploy it in specific ways. That mission offers the illusion, to both writer and reader, that the writer is meaningless (case in point: most wire stories run without a byline), because the transmission of information is made “objective” by being put through those practices.
Feature writers also reveal themselves on the page, not just by what they include but how they go about it. For essayists or fiction writers, this is a no-brainer. This is part of “voice.” For journalists, the idea that what I write would be different from what you write, because I am different from you, is terrifying. It’s contrary to the mission.
But it’s also true. Writers give off clues, and those all add up. As a reader, I’m constantly making a decision about whether to trust that writer or not—not just trust that they are telling the truth, which is the usual journalistic standard of trust, but trust that they are not objectifying the vulnerable people in their stories. As a writer, I’m constantly thinking about this, while I’m reporting and while I’m drafting at my desk, and I’m mercilessly second-guessing myself, because if I don’t, I might screw it up. And then it’s up to the reader to decide whether I’ve succeeded or not.
Jina Moore’s freelance work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, and Best American Science Writing (2009), as well as on public radio programs. She blogs at jinamoore.com.
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