Nearly 40 million Americans live in poverty, making less than $26,200 a year for a family of four. Their stories and their struggles, however, are rarely represented in the mainstream media. If we want to end poverty in the U.S., we need to hear from those who experience it. This week on The Laura Flanders Show, we hear about the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and the work it’s doing to improve—and increase—reporting on poverty.
“We’re having the reckoning in terms of race and gender in terms of who tells what story, and there’s an acknowledgement, at least the beginnings, that people of color need to tell their own stories, women need to tell their own stories. But we haven’t had that conversation around class, around working people.”
— Yoruba Richen
- David Wallis, managing director of The Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
- Yoruba Richen, director, producer, filmmaker and board member of The Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
- Joseph Rodriguez, documentary photographer.
Subscribe to our podcast and become a Patreon partner here for exclusive content and uncut interviews, including our Story Behind the Story series. This edition features Laura Flanders and Jeannie Hopper, the show’s radio and podcast producer, in conversation discussing this week’s episode, “Reporting on Economic Hardship”.
Where to Watch
You can watch this episode on your local WORLD channel at 11:30 am ET on Sunday, September 6.
Click here to find a schedule for your local PBS station.
Click here to watch online on YouTube. The episode will be made available at 11:30 am ET on Sunday, September 6.
Woman: They’re taking everyone and they’re deporting them.
Maisie Crow: When the dashcam started coming in, I realized, wow, we now have this documentary audio visual evidence.
Yoruba Richen: There’s nothing like it if you, you know, feel like you want to say something and maybe change something.
Woman: I left because my ex and my son got into a physical fight. I left the house with all my kids.
David Wallis: Even though it’s a struggle to survive, it’s the greatest thing you can do.
Laura Flanders: It’s all coming up on the Laura Flanders show, the place where the people who say it can’t be done take a backseat to the people who are doing it. Welcome.
Laura: Hard work, not enough money coming in, precarious housing, food that’s scarce. Poverty is a persistent factor of American life. But reporting on it is surprisingly tricky, especially in a media culture that has a lot of time for celebrities and clickbait, but not a whole lot of interest in, or even connection to, the reality that millions of Americans live.
Roughly 40 million people live in poverty in the U.S.A, can you imagine living under $24,000 a year for a family of four? If you can’t, why can’t you? Surely media should help. Why are mainstream media so poor covering poverty? And what one project is doing to tell those important stories.
In 2012, Barbara Ehrenreich, author of the best selling book, “Nickel and Dimed on getting by in America,” founded something called the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. The mission? To tell real stories in creative, affecting, sometimes jarring ways. Another, to help journalists who face economic hardship themselves do this work. What’s it producing? And is anything shifting about the class character of journalism and journalists in the U.S.? Here to tell us, and show us, managing director David Wallis, board member and filmmaker Yoruba Richen, and contributing editor and photo journalist Joseph Rodriguez. Thank you all three. So first, congratulations are due, I think David to you I was at an early meeting from which emerged this project. That was very many years back; you’re here doing great.
David: We’re growing, and we’re proud of what we do, which is fund journalism about inequality and the barriers to the American dream as we see it.
Laura: And what do you do exactly, how do you do that?
David: Well, it’s challenging. What we do is twofold. On one hand, we work with low income reporters, or emerging reporters, and filmmakers and photographers to fund journalism. And sometimes we’ll do multiple drafts, sometimes we’ll buy them a computer. I have one contributor who is unbanked, and I had to send him Target gift cards to pay him through FedEx. That’s how we did it. So we do whatever is necessary to get stories about, you know, about poverty by people who have experienced poverty into mainstream publications. We’ll place the stories and then, on the other hand, we’ll work with very established folks, including these two geniuses who are over here on my right, and we will provide them with funding to do stories and documentaries and photo essays in places like the New York Times. We’ll partner with them, we’ll partner with Showtime. We won an Emmy Award for a project that we helped produce. And so we’re busy putting out about 150 stories and placements in a year.
Laura: Well, congratulations again. I mean, Yoruba you are now very established,
Yoruba: And a genius.
Laura: And a genius
David: That’s true.
Laura: We’ve got it now on tape. Talk a bit about how you came up, how this helped or didn’t help, why you decided to be on the board, and just how needed this is. I mean, why is it significant that you have low income people reporting on low income people?
Yoruba: Well, it’s really interesting just hearing the introduction and being reminded again how rare that is in our coverage. I think we’re seeing a lot of that with, you know, all the political coverage, how the big deficit in the media around economic issues and around the intersectionality of economic issues. To me that was one of the things that’s most exciting about the Economic Hardship Reporting Project is that it’s not just pulling out class as its own thing, because as we know, issues of gender, sexuality, race, all intersecting, you cannot cannot talk about those issues.
Laura: That’s the problem with our bodies and our lived lives.
Yoruba: Exactly, and it’s not “identity politics” as they, you know, as they want to call it, this is our lived lives. The work that I’ve worked on with the organization, and that I’ve seen, it’s all intersectionality, I feel like that’s a base of the organization. Another thing that’s really important, especially as a filmmaker is that the grants that are given, you know, in my case, just speaking very, you know, from my own experience, the two grants that I’ve received from the organization were very early grants. So that’s a key, and that’s very hard to get, especially in documentary when often people want to see something before funding you, but this, the project that we’re working on now, American Reckoning, the early grant led to us being able to do one more shoot, edit a trailer and then get fully funded for a short that we’re doing and partnering with Retro Report. So it’s a real key part of the organization and very important in terms of helping us make work.
Laura: So still going back to the landscape into which this project was born, what’s the problem that the project is trying to address?
Joseph Rodriguez: For my group of folks that I work with, the photojournalism group, the seasoned especially the seasoned photojournalists, I have seen the greatest photographers just get laid off and kicked to the curb over the past 20 years. I worked for 30 years to learn how to really tell a very intimate and important story, like around criminal justice, around race, around migrations from Mexico, you know, if it was not for Economic Hardship Reporting Project, I would not be able to do these stories. So they’re helping me get the work done, and then I’m pretty good at making the media people, the big boys and big girls, feel guilty, so that they’re not doing enough or they’re not showing these stories enough. And so, you know, I go knocking on the doors in The New York Times and The Washington Post and work with them now. You know, it’s really important to work very quietly. What comes from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project-
Laura: We’ll see some of the work from each of you in just a second, but you wanted to answer that question–
David: I just wanted to say about one third of Americans, according to Pew, believe that poor people are in their current state because of lack of effort rather than systemic issues. And so we try to look at those under-reported issues that systemic problems that’s out there–
Laura: I mean, talking about the systemic nature of the situation that we’re in and the question of intersectionality, I’m reminded that our media culture is itself a place of incredible segregation along all the lines that we’ve mentioned so far. And I remember in 2011, I think when we were thinking about how were we gonna cover what some of the media were calling the recovery, it felt to me as if really no journalists had a human personal connection to the reality most people were living, where they were not feeling recovered at all. That culture problem, I think it’s what 72% of journalists live in East Coast cities or coastal cities–
David: Montclair, New Jersey.
Laura: Is that part of the problem we just don’t know anybody, don’t feel it?
Yoruba: Yeah, I think it is. You know, in some ways, I was just thinking, where are we having the reckoning of in terms of race and gender in terms of who tells what story, and there’s an acknowledgement, at least the beginnings that people of color need to tell their own stories, women need to tell their own stories. But a long way to go-
Laura: Revolution 21st century
Yoruba: Exactly, yeah. But we haven’t had that conversation around class and around working people. I mean that hasn’t been happening and the work that the organization is doing is exactly that. And I think that that’s, you know, again, that that’s the problem of how things are covered in the mainstream media.
Laura: So let’s show a couple of examples. We have a few examples of Project-funded pieces, do you want to introduce them, I’m thinking maybe the Dashcam Video piece?
David: Sure, Dashcam Video was a project of the Intercept by Maisie Crow, who’s an Emmy Award winning director, Debbie Nathan, and I’m gonna–
Laura: The ACLU?
David: No, she, Debbie Nathan was at the ACLU at the time, but now she’s an independent reporter. And it shows, she managed to get a hold of the dashcam video from Texas police, and it’s gripping because it shows you the moments where they pull over people for relatively minor traffic violations and then turn them over to ICE.
Laura: Let’s take a quick look.
Police: You’ve got a defective tail light on the right side.
Woman: Oh really?
Maisie: When I first started my job, I was hearing from a lot of people in the community about being stopped for just trivial traffic infractions and then being turned over by the Department of Public Safety, which is the state troopers, being turned over to the border patrol.
Police: Is that your baby in the back?
Police: Is it a boy or girl?
Woman: She is a girl. She’s five.
Man: Five months.
Police: Is he the dad?
Police: Does he have a visa?
Maisie: Texas actually has a really good open records law, and so when I heard these stories, I thought to myself, “I should just take down people’s names “and other information they give me, “and I should ask for the dashcam.”
Police: I’m at a traffic stop. Can you send a Border Patrol agent over here?
Maisie: We don’t have to depend on the mere word of people anymore. We now have this documentary audio visual evidence.
Woman: No, they’re gonna take him, sir! They’re taking everybody!
Police: Who said that?
Woman: Everybody’s saying that they’re taking everyone and they’re deporting them.
Maisie: When the dashcam started coming in, I realized, wow! This is really a record of a deportation machine of state troopers fishing for people on the highways and then turning them into federal immigration officials.
Laura: Super powerful. It makes all the difference in the world to actually hear those voices. Another piece I wanted you to play is the piece about sleeping in your cars.
David: Yeah, it’s Safe Parking by Jennifer Dworkin. It ran on The Nation, and it’s very intimate portraits of three families who are living in their cars. And it’s very moving, these personal stories really, we think, cut through the noise, and hopefully my colleague, Alissa Quart, she says, “Empathy is our metric,” and we hope that this creates a lot of empathy.
Laura: Yeah, take a look.
Woman: I left because my ex and my son got into a physical fight. I left the house with all my kids. I went to a hotel for a while, friend’s house for a while, then another friend’s house for another three months, and then another friend’s house for another three months.
Woman: There’s a Santa Barbara ordinance saying that it’s illegal to sleep in your vehicle overnight. We have 20 lots throughout the Santa Barbara area right over here. So when you pull in, there’s like a parking lot here and here, it’s this back one. You can start entering anytime after 8:00 p.m. and then you have to be by 7:00 a.m. every morning.
Woman:I make the money, I just don’t have good credit. My oldest son, he helps me by watching them while I work at night. There’s been times that they’ll be sleeping in the car while I’m at my night job, that the cops come and knock on the window. And they’ve asked them what are they doing there, and they tell them, “We’re waiting for mom and get off “in 15 minutes.” They know it’s gonna be two more hours.
Laura: Part of me wants to just say, “Rah, rah, I’m so glad this is getting out.” Another part of me wants to say, “Why does it need a nonprofit organization “to raise the funds, to tell these stories “that are the stories of our time,” “and without which we’re not gonna make smart decisions “as a nation?”
Yoruba: This is the power of “alternative journalism,” right? Like that’s what we do, because we know that the mainstream, I mean, I worked at ABC News, you know, and we know the problems there. That it’s, you know, who runs these corporations, the narrative that they latch and hold on to and repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat. And it’s really, you know, thank goodness for these organizations, shows like this, you know, to get this other narrative out there. I mean, it’s you know if we could answer that question, I mean, we’d have a whole different country.
Laura: I mean part of me is glad and super sort of mad.
David:I jokingly say, half jokingly I say, “My job is to put band aids on gushing wounds.” We try to make a modicum of change, but 1400 newspapers have gone out of business in the last 15 years, I believe. And–
Laura: Mostly because their owners wanted to make a 30% return on their investment in that local part market,
David: That’s part of it, that’s right.
Laura: not because there’s no market, I just want to say.
David: The Vindicator, which is an age-old newspaper in Youngstown, Ohio, announced that they’re closing. Now that’s a city with 63,000 people, okay? And Patch, I’m sorry, is not gonna be able to cover the mayor’s office.
Laura: The online local news service.
David: No, you know, you’re not going to have– there’s a value in an experienced reporter being, holding people to account.
Yoruba: And the other thing too, just on that note, looking at local television, right? We’re also seeing a conglomeration of these big corporations buying up local television stations like a Sinclair Broadcast, which has a conservative bent, which is outwardly political bent, telling reporters what to report on, opinion pieces that meet you know, their political goals.
Laura: I also wanna really talk about what you two, especially as journalists, are bringing to these stories that wouldn’t be there otherwise. And I want to use your example, Joseph, of some of the pieces that you’ve brought mostly to the New York Times. Photojournalism, again critical topics, a story that you tell very differently. Introduce the Gangs of LA piece, where you put those folks back in their communities.
Joseph: Right, well, thank you Laura for that question, but I have to step back here, ’cause I grew up in New York City. And I grew up at a time where we had the West Side Story atmosphere of Italians here, Puerto Ricans here. So race was something that grew up with, I heard about all the banter about how I should go back. So as a youngster, I always felt, reading the Daily News, the New York Post, growing up here, seeing every weekend, every Sunday, I think it was Sunday, you’d see the crime pages — who got thrown off the roof in Spanish Harlem and this, and I took it upon myself when I was a student at ICP, International Center of Photography, to look at my own community, Spanish Harlem. We had 150 churches in two and a half square miles, people didn’t know that. And I and I started working on that project, this is important for just in context, where I am and who I am and what I do. Because I went to National Geographic and I said to them, “Hey, would you be interested in looking at us?” Now they have a tendency to slant their stories in a very colonial style, so I went along with it, we did this story for them, it became a big story, they fired the editor because they groves in a filter should not, this is a fact, should not be doing stories about poor families in East Harlem. However, we can go to Africa and shoot, we can do this, we can do that. So I did this story, I went to the Smithsonian Museum the National Museum American Art and said, “Hey, I don’t see us being recognized here,” Because in 1987, I was telling editors in New York, and around the country, that the growth of Hispanic Americans here, it’s growing, we are here. So again, I’m pretty good at sort of nudging the guilt card. So we got this first book published called “Growing up in Spanish Harlem.” And then that sort of was a platform for me to understand. It’s five years of work of spending in a community where we got to get to know families, see families every week. Because, as an ex-addict, I know what it’s like to redeem oneself. I know what it’s like to go to Rikers Island where I spent two little nice little vacation times in there, I like to call it that because it wasn’t a vacation, but, and that also set the tone for me to go to Los Angeles. So in 1992, the riots happened. The Rodney King scene happened, and I decided to go out there on my own. I got a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. That’s how it started, yeah? And then I got another grant from the Mother Jones Foundation, who gave us another grant. And then I spent four weeks there, decided to move there in ’92, stayed there to, for two more years. And so this brings us up to the present where I meet the folks at Economic Hardship and I say, “Hey, it would be interesting to let’s take a look “and see what these guys look like “and the families look like today.” So 20 something years later, we go back, we find Steve Blunt, the families, you know, and you find out they’re not gangsters anymore, they’re not drug addicts anymore. They’re grandfathers now. This is what it’s all about, what we’ve been talking about from the very beginning about owning our own story. Telling it from an insider’s point of view and spending time and time with families. And now we’re putting the pictures up on Instagram, so the kids and the grandkids can learn about their history.
Laura: So just to put a fine point on it for people that might have missed it, your point is to tell a story that didn’t stop with the worst moment in those people’s lives.
Joseph: Yes, exactly. Because that’s the American story, Laura. We all, all, all of us can start at the bottom. And you know, there’s these people that say, “Yes, you can make it, you can make it”– I grew up with affirmative action, that’s why I’m standing here. You know, so I mean, things really, really did change my life because of that time, right? Right here in Brooklyn in New York. So I know what can change. And then when it comes to journalism, this is a very important point, editors after editor after editor would ask me, “Where’s the blood? “Where’s the drugs? “Where’s the guns? “Where’s the AIDS? “Where’s this?” And I would say to them constantly, “Okay, I can give you that, “but we need to show the other side. “to give us a balance in America. “So we’re not just one sided, slanted.”
Laura: You did a piece that also added a new take to a story, a very familiar story around abortion rights. We’re given the story of for and against, and we usually in the media like to talk about the fights. You did something very different for a piece that I think ended up being called Reconception?
Laura: Do you wanna introduce that and we’ll–
Yoruba: Sure, and that’s actually how I started, got introduced to the project, because Alissa Quart, the co-founder, had written a piece about looking at reproductive rights, looking at abortion as part of the spectrum of health care that women receive, and she had written an article about it that I found very moving and resonated with my own family of women who’ve, you know had an abortion, given up kids for adoption and been pregnant and had children
Laura: The whole gamut.
Yoruba: All the whole gamut. And so many women have that experience. So Alissa and I connected around that, and I thought it would be a great, you know, short video piece if we could demonstrate this, show this. And we found a center in Indiana called All-Options that was a resource center for women around the full spectrum women’s reproductive health care.
Laura: So let’s take a look.
Woman: When I was 20, I experienced an unintended pregnancy. It was the hardest time of my life. I had no idea what was the right decision. I didn’t have access to counseling services. I chose adoption. I felt pretty lost.
Woman: All-Options Pregnancy Resource Center is the first of its kind. We do peer counseling, we refer for abortion. And so the full spectrum approach, or the All-Options approach, is a powerful way of reconceptualizing access to services and safe and respectful care.
Woman: Being here today is really meaningful for me. My adoption experience is the one I’m most vocal about, but I have also during the second unintended pregnancy experienced a miscarriage a week or so before I had scheduled an abortion. And I only mentioned that just because reproductive experiences don’t necessarily fit to the linear ideology of mainstream society. And All-Options is unique because it recognizes and validate this full spectrum of experiences.
Woman: It’s not about “abortion is wrong,” it’s not about “abortion is right.” We can no longer see it as a pro-choice, pro-life. It needs to be women’s lives. It’s about what’s right for the moment.
Laura: We often say on this program, we end by asking people, you know, “What’s the story you think “the future will tell of this moment?” And you’re all storytellers. And I guess I would adapt the question slightly to say, you know, “What would be the story the future “would tell of America if your stories got told now “as, not a special project or now and then, but the news?” Which would assume that we had people to carry the news, but just addressing the nature of the story.
David: The number of people who are struggling today is enormous, and they’re struggling not because of lack of effort, but they’re struggling because of systemic issues that this country is set up to hold us back rather than give us a leg up.
Yoruba: I think for me, it would be the fundamental brokenness of our democracy, and in how we elect our leaders through am electoral college system that’s not representative and a gerrymandering process that has kept voices out of the system and is the reason, part of the reason, why we have kept these structures, which are not helping the majority of Americans.
Laura: You get the last word.
Joseph: As a humanist, I care about telling stories about us that struggle and that may have a hard time, but that there is a chance for us to tell it more in a full and honest way, and not necessarily always put us in this negative spot that we will not change.
Laura: Do you have words of encouragement for journalists or people who might think they want to be journalists or the kid on the block that’s telling stories to his neighbors or hers?
Joseph: I mean, I just, think about what your heart is telling you and think about what your mind is telling you. And then maybe shop less, read more.
David: It’s the best profession in the world because you get to learn every day. It’s still something that even though it’s a struggle to survive, it’s the greatest thing you can do, in my opinion.
Yoruba: And it’s deeply, deeply satisfying.
Yoruba: Even, you know, if the economic rewards may not always be there, but it’s so satisfying. I feel privileged to be able to tell these stories, that people let me into their lives, give me access, and there’s there’s nothing like it, if you you know, feel like you want to say something and maybe change something.
Joseph: It is quite amazing when you see that, because we just recently had a big exhibition at Photoville in Los Angeles, and families that I photographed in the 90s all came with their children and cried and just, “We’ve changed Joe, we’ve changed.” I’m dealing with people right now that I photographed back then that are still in their own 12 step environment and it is an ecstatic, that is a beautiful thing for me to discuss that journey with their children, with their families, and thanks to Economic Hardship Reporting Project, we can do stories like this.
Laura: Thank you so much, I really appreciate all your work, and I agree, best job in the world, glad we can all do it.
All: Thank you, for your–
Laura: You’re watching the Laura Flanders Show.
For more on this episode and other forward-thinking content, and to tune into our broadcast, visit our website at “LauraFlanders.org”, and follow us on social media “@TheLFshow”.