The Working Poor: Is Their Gap With the Middle Class Narrowing?
A reporter looks for ways to merge coverage of the middle class and the poor.
There is a distinctly American view of poverty. The poor are not like you and me. They are homeless men huddled outside shelters, single mothers lingering on welfare in the projects or, most recently, dirt-poor families ripped apart by freak hurricanes on the Gulf Coast. The poor are separated from the rest of us, this view holds, perhaps by natural disasters, addictions or long stints on welfare, and they rarely join us at work.
In reality, there are no clear boundaries. These days the poor might serve coffee, greet patients at the doctor's office, guard commuter trains, or handle legal papers. A team of Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporters spent the past year with these workers, watching them lose their homes, declare bankruptcy, enroll in college, get pregnant, and most of all work in an economy where the odds of moving off the bottom are getting longer. We met nurses who didn't realize they were poor, emergency room technicians who didn't care for the label, and cocktail waitresses who didn't want to talk about it. But they were undeniably poor. They carried loads of credit card debt to cover basics, shopped in Dumpsters, enrolled their kids in Medicaid, and increasingly lined up at local food banks for groceries.
Together, these workers represent perhaps the biggest economic story of this new century because their ranks appear to be growing, swelled by the expansion of low-wage service jobs, soaring urban housing costs, limited access to higher education, stagnant wages, and rising living standards. Together, these changes threaten to fundamentally alter the nation's workforce. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer found nearly 300,000 working-poor residents in its metro area — households living at no more than twice the federal poverty level even though at least one member works full time.
Our series of stories began with Kathleen Collins, a 34-year-old mother of two firmly in the labor force as a veteran emergency room technician, the kind who would check your father in if he had a heart attack. In her mind's eye, she was not poor. But she couldn't cover her bills on the $21,000 she earned a year. Instead, the single mother racked up credit card debt for pots, pans, plates and other housewares and paid 19 percent interest on her car loan.
And she didn't really want to talk about it. After overcoming some initial reluctance, Collins decided to share her story and held little back during interviews at her home, at the hospital, and over the telephone. But as we neared publication, she appeared to become nervous, dodging the newspaper's photographers and rarely returning telephone calls. When one photographer showed up on her doorstep, she refused to let him in her house. Collins wasn't opposed to running the story, but she wasn't completely comfortable with it either. Her story appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer a year ago, and she has not returned my calls since.
Collins was not unique. Throughout the year, few people initially wanted to be poster children for poverty, working or otherwise. For example, one story held for a month while we waited for a couple's cold feet to warm up. Their reluctance forced me to overhaul my approach to reporting. When I covered Congress, I could not be too aggressive; now I spent most of my early interviews simply explaining the project. I let families tell their stories over weeks or months, and the longer they spent with us, the more comfortable they became. This slower, more easy approach worked well with almost everyone I met after Collins. Eventually, these families let us into their kitchens, cubicles, lease signings, and job-training classes.
Photographers and I succeeded because we spent time with people, and we reminded them that any bad choices they'd made were nearly always dwarfed by the changing contours of the U.S. job market. These workers were caught on the wrong end of a 21st century, service-based economy that some economists have described as a "U," with plenty of low-wage jobs at one end and lots of high-paying jobs on the other, but relatively few jobs in the middle. Further complicating the life circumstances of the working poor is that real wages for these Washington state residents have remained largely stagnant — at about nine dollars an hour — during the past 30 years, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
The fact is no matter how hard these people work there are fewer middle-class jobs for relatively unskilled workers to move into today. Many of those whom we featured in our reporting know this. "No man, I am not doing OK. If I was doing OK I would be doing something else," Nahimana Hakizimana, a Seattle security guard earning $11 an hour, told me earlier this year. "I don't really think if I keep doing exactly what I am doing I can reach the middle class."
To avoid losing readers' engagement with these people's daily lives and their financial dilemmas, we spent days and weeks paring down research on a specific policy issue to just a few nuggets of critical information. While it's not uncommon for a narrative story to contain only a few lines about research, in our articles a person's story might dominate the text, but the empirical findings would define the story's broader significance.
To steer clear of stereotypes common in much of today's poverty reporting, I backed away from working with nonprofits and their agendas and hunted for people whose lives fit into our reporting in unexpected areas. For example, I found a factory worker at a local high school and poverty-level employees working at a leading law firm and government agencies. The most fertile ground was among caregivers, such as a social services worker who didn't serve her own children meat often because it cost too much and a child-care teacher earning less than $12 an hour after a quarter century in the business.
Despite an already lean newsroom, the newspaper launched "Hard Work, Hard Times: The Plight of Puget Sound's Working Poor" with an impressive commitment: a team of two full-time reporters, another part-time reporter, and one lead editor. Senior newsroom editors believed in the project's goal of uncovering the extent of working poverty in the region and regularly pushed to buy extra space for these stories.
When the team and newsroom leaders disagreed, it was often about time — because these stories took a lot of it. I've written fast — as many as six stories a day when I was at Bloomberg News — but now my pace was slower, in part because what we were trying to do with this series was to answer difficult and fundamental questions about what creates poverty. For example, editors wanted to kick off the project with a definitive count of Seattle's working poor and the forces behind their struggles by the end of 2004. As it turned out, we didn't publish our leadoff article until February 2005.
This delay in timing between what editors expected and what we were able to accomplish — given the reporting, our research about underlying social and economic trends, thinking and writing — became a recurring theme for a while. By midyear, though, we'd found a balance. I fed the newspaper a steady diet of smaller stories, while we grappled with some of the overarching issues, such as the rise of poor elderly women in the workforce and the fact that access to four-year colleges has improved little for low-income students during the past three decades.
Now, management wants to move on. Having devoted a year to this exploration of the people and forces involved with the working poor, they want our newspaper to tackle other issues. Editors show little interest in extending the social and economic topics that emerged as part of this project into a full-time beat.
Like newspapers across the country, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is trying to attract readers and keep its aging subscribers. For us, and I suspect other newspapers, this has meant reorganizing the newsroom to cover the middle class and their concerns — the public schools, the economy, shopping and personal health. As the publisher leads this effort to keep our newspaper alive, he has precious few resources, since our newsroom was lean long before being so lean came into vogue.
It is possible, though, that the working poor hold some future promise as a news story. I noticed while looking at some Washington state data that six of the 15 jobs most in demand around Seattle pay less than $30,000 a year. These are the kinds of people who are keenly interested in any help-wanted ads.
After having devoted a year to coverage of the working poor and the challenges they confront, my hope is to be able to merge, whenever possible, coverage of the middle class and the poor. Though I expect to spend the next year writing about middle-class families, a group our marketers say still reads newspapers, I have basically offered management a deal. I will tackle the reader-rich middle class; just let me pick away at stories about people who are a few rungs down on the economic ladder, who inhabit the increasingly crowded world of low wages. There are fewer rungs between the two groups each year anyway.
Paul Nyhan is a reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.