Covering poverty and politics

Why you should cover poverty and race

  1. Local and national American politics have and will continue to be influenced by income and class. Tax policy and redistribution of wealth are perfect topics to start a heated debate with any group.
  2. Wealth and class are closely related to who votes and for whom the vote is cast. Wealthy Americans are far more likely to vote-and vote Republican-than low-income residents. Exit polls continue to show the poor who do vote are likely to vote Democratic.
  3. The poor do not have a political party dedicated to their cause. Nationally, labor had a party alternative in presidential elections from the late 19th century until Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1932 election. The merger of the American Labor Federation (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) means that the Democratic Party has been the choice of labor at the national level.
  4. Wealth and influence have become synonymous in the political field. This fact is especially true in local politics that usually occurs out of the bright glare of media. Without wealth, groups are at a disadvantage for influencing public policy. Surveys have shown that low-income Georgians are less likely to contact elected officials than their wealthier counterparts.
  5. Poverty affects a community’s potential for economic development.
  6. Minorities such as African Americans and Hispanics are much more likely to suffer from persistent poverty where poverty repeats itself over several generations. When the image of poverty is the working family that faces an unfortunate circumstance, such as a health problem or a general decline in the economy, and cannot find work that pays enough to bring the family out of poverty, the public is supportive of programs to assist the poor. In the 1980s, the face of the impoverished became the so-called “welfare queen.” This image of a mother who has more and more children while staying at home watching television turned public support against social assistance programs.
  7. Local reporters can be the best source for understanding and articulating public opinion for their community. Journalists can also relate public support to policy initiatives affecting low-income residents. Reporting can uncover the effects of poverty that directly affect the community. A reporter should remember to separate persistent poverty, which occurs over the long term, and episodic poverty, which happens with temporary downturns in the economy.
  8. Local politics focus primarily on how government services are delivered and distributed. The rate of poverty in a given place has a direct impact on local government services, such as the police, hospitals, schools and all forms of social services. Many programs rely on the government’s definition of poverty and the definition of who is in poverty becomes a heated political issue.

How to measure the opportunity to cover poverty and race

Consider these eight sets of questions:

  1. Who consumes the majority of government services? Who pays the majority of taxes?
    Include the police, fire departments and schools in your assessment of service consumption. Think about sales taxes (especially SPLOSTs) in your assessment of taxes paid. Now consider how much residents pay in tax-again including sales tax-as a percentage of their income. How likely are low income residents in your county to know about and take advantage of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)?
  2. To what extent do local officials and candidates openly discuss poverty in your county?
    With whom are they having these discussions and for what purposes? How do law enforcement, emergency response officials, school board members, planners and city managers take into account the interests of poor residents in the execution of their duties? How does the county or the city handle issues associated with homelessness and panhandling? To what extent do local ordinances address the need for affordable housing?
  3. How does the issue of race affect local elections and policymaking?
    Are elections competitive in the primaries and general elections? Does one party assume the African-American vote, or do both parties vie for it? Are African-American residents included in policy discussions? Do upper- and middle-income African Americans see their interests aligned with low income residents? In other words, to what extent are the politics of poverty and race blended?
  4. How do local candidates court low-income voters in your county?
    Where are polling places located in relation to low-income housing? What transportation alternatives are open to low- income residents to get to the polls? Which party or civic group is actively advocating for the interests of poor residents, children, seniors and families? What role, if any, do faith-based organizations play in local politics? What role, if any, does the local chamber of commerce play in local politics? What is the chamber’s relationship with advocates of low-income residents?
  5. What role do low-income residents play in local decision-making in your county?
    Do poor residents attend town hall meetings? Who represents the interests of low-income families involving planning and zoning? How are the interests of low-income residents included in the county’s most recent comprehensive plan? How might poor residents be incorporated in the next comprehensive plan?
  6. How much income should a family of four earn in order to meet basic needs in your county?
    What percent of families receive food stamps? What options exist for job training after high school in your county?
  7. How do the majority of residents view the issue of poverty in your community?
    What do they see as the primary underlying cause of poverty: personal flaws or systemic economic forces beyond anyone’s control?
  8. Why are blacks and Hispanics more likely to be in poverty than whites?
    What is the poverty rate for children in your county? What explains the high poverty rate of children?

A step-by-step approach to finding and reporting important and engaging stories

Look at your answers to the questions above. Which topic (or topics) offers the most opportunity to cover poverty and politics in your county? Pick one for this step-by-step approach to finding and reporting important, engaging stories.

As with any story, you’ll need to:

  • Consult secondary sources
  • Locate key documents
  • Mine key sources of data
  • Interview sources
  • Observe the story in play

Let’s take, as an example, the role of low-income residents in policymaking: What steps might you take to find and report a story about policymaking in your county and what role low income residents played or did not play? Assume that the county council is planning to build a new recreation center in a newly developed part of the county adjacent to a new large housing development a proposed shopping plaza.

Step one:

Look at census data to determine the rate of poverty in the county. Data from the American Fact Finder gives you the poverty level and the number of county residents living at 150 and 200 percent of the poverty threshold. From the data, you can assess:

  • age, race, and gender breakdowns for people in poverty
  • median income level in your county
  • average home value

If you acquire the data at the census tract or bloc level, you can see where poverty is located in the county relative to the proposed recreation site. Consult data gathered by the county on recreation facility usage. Research the rates of childhood obesity in the county. Determine options available after-school care.

Step two:
Assess the level of community concern about the proposed recreation center by counting the number of citizens attending and speaking at council meetings. Interview county commissioners on how many inquiries they received on the issue. Ask about the means for communicating plans to the general public throughout the decision-making process. Interview advocates for low-income residents about the likely impact of the county’s decision on low-income residents.

Step three:
Ask low-income residents about the new recreation center. Interview decision- makers to discover how deeply low-income residents were considered in the planning process. Consider the alternatives offered by opposition as well as the views of the decision advocates within the community. Find out how other communities with similarly high levels of poverty handled comparable decision making.

Essential resources

Here are essential resources that should help you cover poverty and politics in your county.

Key sources of data

The Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey is the world’s largest, continuous telephone health survey system, tracking health conditions and risk behaviors in the United States yearly since 1984.

The Odum Institute for Research in Social Science is housed at the University of North Carolina. This site contains archives of the University of Georgia’s Peach State and Georgia polls, as well as Georgia State University’s Georgia State poll. These data can provide a context for current attitude towards poverty.

Georgia’s Secretary of State Office posts election results online dating back to 1988. This is an excellent resource for elections data.

The Georgia County Guide provides more than 165,000 facts that cover each of Georgia’s 159 counties. The easy-to-use format profiles the state’s past and present social, economic, and demographic environments. Published by the University of Georgia for 20 years, the guide covers topics such as agriculture, courts, crime, education, health, housing, labor, population and public welfare.

U.S. Census Quick Facts gives county data on a number of variables, including the poverty rate.

American Fact Finder provides access to detailed data collected in the decennial censuses and by the American Community Survey.

Current Population Survey is a joint effort between the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Consumer Price Index documents the relative cost of consumer goods. The index is updated monthly.

Key sources of documents

The Self-Sufficiency Standard for Georgia is a state-specific approach to understand what resources are necessary to meet basic necessities. The report was written in November 2008 by Dr. Diana M. Pearce.

Measuring Poverty: A New Approach was written by a U.S. Census Bureau committee charged with assessing the problems with the current poverty measurement formula.

Teaching Tolerance is a program started by the Southern Poverty Law Center that features a timeline of poverty in America. This document is helpful for adding historical context to stories.

The Saguaro Seminar provides an overview of social capital and what this phrase means. International organizations such as the World Bank have already begun to use the concept of social capital to address world poverty.

Story example: Best practice

Poverty Peddlers
– by Jason Grotto and Scott Hiaasen of The Miami Herald – 2007

2007 Harry Chapin Media Award

What’s the story: A seven-part series reveals the Miami-Dade Empowerment Trust squandered millions of dollars on pet projects and insider deals while failing to deliver promised jobs.

Why it works: This is the ultimate package, full with detailed and well-reported text, clear photos, video, maps, documents and reactions from readers – all designed and layed out on a separate special standing page of the Web site. Readers called for change.

How to do it: Which organizations in your community fund and handle building projects, development, federal grants and the main projects of the city? Do a “follow the money” series and request any financial documents possible. Throw a large effort into finding the stakeholders, incorporating video, photo, maps, documents and Web design into a tight package.

Terms to know: Poverty money, job investment

Questions to ask:
Where exactly is the money going?
What happens after a celebratory groundbreaking? How are buildings built, and how is money spent?
How do local governments apply and qualify for federal grants? How are they monitored and held accountable?
What areas may be most likely to receive grants – and then abuse them?
How could legislators and other power-playing figures benefit from abusing poverty money?
What did the taxpayers pay?
How are poverty money projects promoted, and do legislators follow through on their word?
How are optimism and the time frame being regarded realistically?

Sources: Local legislators, court records of lawsuits, county documents, internal e-mails, bank records, canceled checks, talk to contractors and developers

Story example: Multimedia

Understanding Poverty
– by Ben DeSoto, a documentary and freelance photojournalist in Houston, Texas and former staff member of the Houston Chronicle – 1988

2007 grant from the Houston Endowment for an exhibit, book and documentary

What’s the story:  DeSoto, through a series of photo packages, looks at the state of homelessness in Houston – as he found it in institutions and in the streets. The exhibit also looks at local efforts by groups and coalitions to help end homelessness in the town.

Why it works: DeSoto shoots compelling and disturbing photos of what life is really like as a homeless person. He follows two in particular – Ben White and Judy Pruitt – who have struggled with poverty for many years.

How to do it: Sometimes a “day in the life” profile is the most effective, especially through photographs. Single images are powerful, and viewers can study all parts and apply meaning – with our without words. Target two or three key citizens and document their lives, building a relationship and trust until you become invisible in the scene.

Questions to ask:
Where is homelessness prevalent in the community?
What causes the prevalence to be in that area or demographic?
How do these stories break away from stereotypes and put a face to the reality of poverty?
What is a visual way to capture and explain these stories?

Sources: Local charities and non-profit organizations, homeless and poor people in the community, local legislators and elected officials who may help

Story example: On a shoestring

Catholic conservatives, liberals battle over anti-poverty funding”
– by Manya Brachear of the Chicago Tribune – 2009

What’s the story: Brachear looks at the Chicago Catholic Campaign for Human Development and how it’s helping the poor. Conservatives are looking to put a halt to any practices that go against beliefs about same-sex marriage and birth control.

Why it works: The reporter looks at both sides fairly, couching the poverty-related issue in a larger religious and political argument.

How to do it: Evaluating poverty in terms of politics can be tough. Profile community group efforts in your area, and compare (in your notes) what the different groups do. Why are some different, and what areas aren’t covered? This may identify a political breakdown, or it could give another story idea – parts of poverty in your community that aren’t being served.

Terms to know: Partisan agendas, President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty”, national collections by churches

Questions to ask:
Who is helping the poor and homeless in the community? Do they have an agenda about why and how they care for the poor?
How are anti-poverty services being handled – morally and financially?
What groups have historically helped others in the community? What politics and loyalties affected the groups in the past?
How are legislators using or helping these groups?

Sources: Local nonprofits and activists, investigate those who are giving care, religious campaigns for human development in the state vs. catholic citizen groups in the state, look at links to immigration advocacy groups, workers’ unions or collaboratives, local environmental justice coalitions