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Newsworthy but not sexy

If you are a reporter and reading this, try this exercise: you’re a single parent; you have two children, ages two and seven; you have a high school diploma. Write yourself a budget: give yourself a job in line with your qualifications (with a typical salary), then figure out how much a typical apartment in the L.A. basin area costs, how much to budget for food, health care, child care, transportation. The assignment serves a purpose: to bring home the fact that it is impossible to support a family on minimum wage. The numbers simply cannot work. You can make up relatives to take care of the children while you’re working, you can make up a second or even a third job, you can pretend that L.A.’s public transportation works well enough that you won’t spend hours commuting, you can discover the holy grail–a minimum wage job with health insurance!–but no matter how many miracles you make up, you’re going to be relying on credit cards and getting deeper and deeper in debt.

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Since the ’90s, real wages have dropped. While this economy means that everybody is feeling the pinch, a press that already underreported the “working poor” has stopped talking about them altogether. Every story is about how the formerly-rich and -middle class are dealing with cuts in income. This makes sense in one sense; reporters are, in essence, reporting about the trends as they themselves are experiencing them. As reporters are being laid off right and left, those who are left are seeing budgets drying up for local news coverage, and advertisers don’t target the working poor because the working poor have no money. So reporting is going for the most accessible story, the cheapest to produce, the one that will resonate with advertisers’ target demographics: how their own class is dealing with this economy.

Barbara Ehrenreich wrote an excellent article, Too Poor to Make the News this weekend, pointing out that while the press will pay lip service to unemployment, stories about the working poor who are losing the minimum-wage jobs that barely got them by are not “sexy” enough. People losing their houses are more likely to get press sympathy than those who simply can’t make their rent. And at the same time, nonprofits that service low-wage populations have seen their endowments drop and donations decline, leading to layoffs and service cuts.

Economic stimulus money isn’t likely to get to the people at the bottom. Measures enacted to get it to the people who need it most, like reforming unemployment insurance, have been stymied by several state governors more interested in political rhetoric than their constituents. Affordable universal health care is gearing up for a fight against an apathetic or even hostile Congress. When the press doesn’t cover the people who are hurting the most, it’s easy to say that modernizations to unemployment and health care aren’t necessary. If the press were to show the true state of poverty in America today, the public would demand that something be done.

Unfortunately, as I see it, the press is too afraid of losing what’s left of its own industry to use their platform to leverage change.

- Janaki Spickard-Keeler

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