Shelf Life: The Other War We’re Not Winning

Will the shrinking of the middle class finally make us pay attention to poverty?

| May-June 2008

While no one was looking, we managed to eradicate hunger in the United States, thereby erasing one of our most disturbing symbols of enduring economic inequality. How did we do it?

Easy: We just came up with a more palatable name for it. “Very low food security” is the new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) designation for households that can’t afford to put enough food on the table, which results in “reduced food intake” and “disrupted eating patterns.” The new terminology took over beginning with the USDA’s 2005 Household Food Security report, a switch observed by one eagle-eyed reporter at the Washington Post but not many others. The most recent report, reflecting 2006 data, found that 12.6 million households were “food insecure,” with about a third of those (4.6 million) falling into the “very low” category.

If you hadn’t heard that more than 10 percent of American households are in danger of running out of food, you’re not the only one. We don’t talk much about poverty anymore, in part because it’s a story that rarely makes headlines. “The issue is under-covered mainly because right now, the government is not actively engaged in programs trying to address the problem,” says David K. Shipler, author of The Working Poor: Invisible in America. Without War on Poverty programs to check in on, minimum-wage legislation to track, or new research findings to parse, reporters don’t have “hooks” on which to hang their stories. Consequently, there is a paucity of coverage outside of rare enterprise stories and ubiquitous holiday-themed tales about food shelves and shelters.

The result is that many people have an incomplete picture of poverty and what Shipler calls its “constellation of problems,” which magnify and reinforce one another. Political polarization over whose fault it is doesn’t help, either, Shipler says. Liberals point to the failures of government and institutions, while conservatives blame individuals and families for poor choices. “It’s just impossible,” he says, “to pull apart the tangled causal factors and put them at one end of the political spectrum or the other.”

Perhaps that’s why there’s such reluctance in the mainstream media to identify the root problems of poverty: No one likes a blame game. In an analysis of network TV news between 2003 and 2006, Extra! (Sept.-Oct. 2007) found that fewer than 60 stories about poverty aired on ABC, CBS, and NBC combined. (That’s fewer, the study’s authors drily note, than those networks’ 69 news segments concerning Michael Jackson.) “If you’re poor and want to get on the nightly news,” the study adds, “it helps to be either elderly or in the armed forces.”

I’ve been impressed with recent indie-press coverage of poverty and inequality, though the perspectives of the poor themselves remain surprisingly difficult to find.