A year ago, I was executive producer of a series about poverty that aired on North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC. The series was, if anything, large. We produced two half-hour documentaries, 20 feature reports, 10 call-in programs, 32 pieces we called "poverty shorts," a photo exhibit, a DVD slide show, and a public- opinion poll. The size of the project, and the variety of forms we used, was a deliberate effort to get our listeners' attention. We wanted them to think about two questions: What is poverty? And how has poverty changed since the early 1960's, when poverty was a major focus of public attention?
These questions obsessed and motivated me for nearly a year while pondering, planning and producing this series that we called "North Carolina Voices: Understanding Poverty."
The idea for a radio series about poverty had been simmering in my mind for a long time. During my five years as news director at WUNC, a major shift in the state's economy had been taking place. Tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs had moved overseas, leaving entire families and whole communities shell-shocked, unprepared for the future suddenly thrust upon them. At the same time, the high-tech bubble burst, and the relatively strong economy in the state's urban areas was shaken. Highly educated workers were rethinking their lives, too, and retraining for new careers.
In our regular news reporting, we did many good stories about these changes and their consequences, but I knew there was more to be done. And around this time, it occurred to me how seldom I was hearing the word poverty on the radio. I heard a lot about layoffs, unemployment and the changing economy, but I wasn't hearing much about what it meant to be poor. Were the people losing their jobs becoming poor? Did they meet the definition of poverty? I wanted to know how the notion of poverty fit into the story of massive job loss.
Henredon Furniture opened its Spruce Pine Plant in 1967. It was once the county’s largest employer. The company began phasing out operations in the fall of 2004.
“I see a lot of people who have not found jobs. I see people who are working at much lower wages than they were before. Having lost hundreds of manufacturing jobs, the local economy is suffering. We’re trying to bring jobs back that would be as good as we can locate now. I don’t know that we’ll ever get back perhaps what we’ve lost.” —Sandra Buchanan, then director of the Mitchell County office of the North Carolina Employment Security Commission. Photo © Billy Barnes.
The Project's Roots
All of these questions came together in the winter of 2004 when the station had a sudden opportunity to apply for some grant money, and I was asked to come up with an idea for a series, quickly. The grant required an historical angle, so I headed for the library. The afternoon I spent there — buried in the archives of the North Carolina Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill — was exhilarating. I ended up in a dusty little room with an ancient looking VCR and watched a film made in 1963 by the staff of the North Carolina Fund.
The fund was a new idea, fueled by private money and a governor, Terry Sanford, who wanted to do something about entrenched poverty in the state. This film was a "how to" for community leaders interested in applying for money to set up antipoverty programs. I was struck most by the film's tone. Dramatically, authoritatively, in a very early 1960's kind of way, the film said, as I recall: "Poverty is a huge problem. It's a problem we've been ignoring, but we can't afford to anymore. And we can solve it. We can, through effort and activism, make poverty history."
I returned to my office bursting with ideas. We wrote our proposal for a very ambitious project. Today I can go back and track the energized and fast-paced thinking that occurred as we were writing it. My drafts are saved under titles like "Thursday 8 AM" and "Thursday 8:30 AM with new ideas." The project we proposed would result in a "series of radio broadcasts concerning the changes in the experience and perception of poverty over time and especially since the pivotal 'War on Poverty' 40 years ago."
We didn't get the grant. "Whew!" was my private reaction, but the idea did not go away.
Turns out that our station manager, Joan Siefert Rose, wanted to hear this project on the radio and was eager to see the station take on big projects like this one. Most importantly, she was willing to spend station funds to make it happen. I resigned as news director and suggested I oversee the poverty project instead. I knew I couldn't do both. The job created for me was one I hadn't known I was longing for: senior editor for special projects.
Late in the summer of 2004, I started to plan the poverty series in earnest. At the time, my other responsibility at the station was overseeing special election coverage, so a lot of newsroom conversations were focused on politics. I was thinking about everything through the prism of questions such as, "How do Republicans see this? How do Democrats? What informs the worldview of liberals and conservatives? If their worldviews are so different, why?" I started to think about poverty this way. I took a step back and did my best to push away what I thought I knew so that I could ask in a fresh way: "What's political about poverty?"
A North Carolina strip shopping center.
“It is so expensive to be poor. And I don’t mean in a symbolic way. I mean physically, literally, in dollars and cents, it is more expensive to be poor than it is to be middle class. In a poor community you’ll have a convenience store instead of a grocery store. In a poor community you’ll have a check casher instead of an ATM machine. In a poor community you may have an ambulance that takes you to the emergency room instead of … health insurance or a doctor’s appointment. It is literally 10 to 20 percent, in some cases 50 percent, more expensive to start out poor. So how do you ever get ahead?” —Martin Eakes, founder and CEO of Self-Help Credit Union, a nonprofit lending institution in Durham, North Carolina. Photo © Billy Barnes.
The Politics of Poverty
So began my quest to better understand the politics of poverty. I knew I was more familiar with what would be described as the liberal point of view. So I needed someone who could help me see poverty through a conservative lens. I went to Robert Rector. He's a senior research fellow who focuses on poverty at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C. think tank whose mission is to promote conservative public policies. Rector's ideology is pretty far right on the political spectrum; even some conservatives regard his thinking as extreme. But his ideas have held sway in Washington; he was an influential voice during the 1990's debate about welfare reform, and The Heritage Foundation remains one of the more powerful think tanks today.
Rector's basic argument is that there is virtually no poverty left in the United States; the 37 million Americans defined by the Census Bureau as poor are not really poor. He argues that most of the people defined as "poor" in America "live in material conditions that would be judged as comfortable or well-off just a few generations ago," as he cowrote in a paper called "Understanding Poverty in America." Americans, in his view, live in such a rich country, that to be poor in the United States is not really to be poor anymore.
This point of view was not new to me, but I heard it with new significance and interest. Here was an influential voice in current political circles making an argument that there are almost no poor people in America and that the census definition of poverty exaggerates the problem. At the same time, the official poverty rate is going up, and people on the political left argue that the threshold is set too low and that millions of Americans struggle to get by but are not being counted among the official poor. How can meaningful conversation about poverty take place when there is so little agreement on what the word means?
I started asking everyone I talked with: "What is poverty?" That question became the central focus of our radio series, along with "What's changed?"
Questions are what drive me as a journalist, and I don't think it's my job to end up at a particular point of view or sway opinion to a certain outcome. Some people think my take on this topic is exactly what's wrong with journalism today and indeed what's wrong with the country. Some of our listeners, I learned, were frustrated that our series on poverty did not take a stronger stand on the topic, that it did not say "This is an outrage," or "This must be changed." Some were surprised — others were angry — to hear Rector's voice included as a part of our series, denying the problem of poverty altogether.
As it happens, this series aired when an intense and intensely political conversation was going on about issues of balance, accuracy and equal time, especially in public broadcasting. I believe that some listeners heard our series — full of questions, thin on answers, fascinated by various voices — and thought we were caving in to a command to "keep things equal." Other listeners heard a series that reinforced their belief that public radio is always taking on liberal topics with a liberal bias, so it's hard for me to really know what to make of the varied reaction the series evoked.
But the series achieved one of our key goals: it captured listeners' attention, and we hope it got them talking and thinking and reflecting on poverty in their place and time — asking what it means to be poor, who is poor, why are they poor, and what's changing about poverty. Getting people to ponder questions like these, possibly in new ways, matters. One listener wrote: "I listened to [your series] every morning with our sons as we drove to school. Some of it is hard for them to hear, but it has sparked great discussion within our family. And so, I am grateful to you as a professional and as a mom."
That comment — and others like it — continues to give me a tremendous amount of satisfaction about the work we did on this series.
Emily Hanford works with North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, as executive producer of "North Carolina Voices" and is now working on a series about high school. "North Carolina Voices: Understanding Poverty" won a 2006 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Broadcast News Award.