The Other Americans: Poverty in the United States

Instead of pitying the poor, we should feel a sense of kinship that leads to empathy.

| Summer 2015

  • Even Americans who don’t identify themselves as poor know how it feels to be broke, to need or want something they can’t afford, or to be underpaid or lose a job. If not, they can imagine these feelings without too much of a stretch.
    Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Dorothea Lange

I first started to write about poverty in 2012 for The American Prospect, but I actually don’t describe my beat as “poverty,” though that’s how other people classify it, including my editors at the magazine. I say I cover “opportunity.” America is a country that still believes it’s full of opportunity, and my project is to assess that belief. We know now, of course, that upward mobility has stalled, and that the middle class has been leaking from the bottom like a sieve, so it’s a rich topic, and an increasing but still small number of writers is drawn to it.

Since I began, I’ve published three big stories: on one of the poorest rural counties in Kentucky; on a hotel housing homeless families in suburban Denver (Foreclosed and Financially Stranded at the Ramada Inn); and on a five-year drop in the life expectancy of white women who do not graduate from high school, which I investigated by going to my home state of Arkansas. My goal was to spend enough time in each of those communities that I could first find the right questions to ask. I wanted to discover stories that would illustrate how each place was unique, and the various challenges those who lived there had to overcome. So, in Owsley County, Kentucky, a place where poverty seemed written into the landscape, I asked, “How do you create opportunity here?” In Denver, I thought, “How do people who were once middle class come to terms with the fact that they may never be again?” For the article about poorly educated white women dying young, I wondered, “Why would hardship fall so heavily on these women, and where can I go to explain what their lives are like?” It takes weeks just to come up with the question, which is more time than most journalists are afforded to report and write an entire story.

It’s important to me to avoid a trap I think many writers fall into, one that I’m never entirely sure I succeed in avoiding, in which the subjects of articles aren’t presented as real people but rather are offered up as illustrations of suffering. While the contours of life for low-income Americans are shaped by want and need, and it’s important to show what it means to go without in a country so full of plenty, the big problem is that I’m not sure what it accomplishes to write about their plight without also exploring the other parts of their lives. The most it can do is elicit pity from people already inclined to care—at worst, it draws only ridicule. Pity has its uses, but it also has its limits, especially in writing about a population already so misrepresented, ignored, and disempowered.


Articles about poverty that are just a catalog of hard times are so prevalent that Dwight Macdonald, writing in The New Yorker in 1963, thought it was inherent to the exercise: “There is a monotony about the injustices suffered by the poor that perhaps accounts for the lack of interest the rest of society shows in them. Everything seems to go wrong with them. They never win. It’s just boring.” But it doesn’t need to be so. Instead of a litany of miseries, reporting on the poor could offer deeply textured portraits that instead reveal them to be humans just like the rest of us—an approach that should build a sense of commonality and make readers question their own assumptions about the country they live in. We shouldn’t feel pity but a sense of citizenship, of kinship, that leads to empathy. Even Americans who don’t identify themselves as poor know how it feels to be broke, to need or want something they can’t afford, or to be underpaid or lose a job. If not, they can imagine these feelings without too much of a stretch. The grind of facing such disappointments day after day is what needs to be communicated through writing, and readers should begin to recognize the people they’re meeting on the page, even if they don’t necessarily like them.

7/8/2015 3:43:29 AM

Hello, I find horrible that hard working Americans, some down to an income of less than $650month , while raising my grandchild, can be bullied by the US Gov., because I can't afford an attorney (not criminal, so no pro-bono!), can't get REAL healthcare because I'm A) in Maine, B) on Mainecare/Medicaid, people that seem to no longer be viable humans to save, or even treat as the "stakes are to high" & money to low to treat these patients with medications that may cause "problems" for the doctors despite humiliating & expensive trips for urine tests despite, age, or any instance EVER of substance abuse! When did America become so greedy, careless, and literally not care for their fellow American, child, adult, or even soldier. I always believed you could achieve anything in our country, I am no longer under that once happy illusion. Did you ever notice the poor are more apt to help than the rich? I wonder why?! Broken in Maine

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