For two years, I had the privilege of working as the poverty correspondent for The Nation magazine. Contributing to the oldest political weekly in the country—one with such a storied history of covering issues that are too often ignored—was a real honor.
In January 2012, we created a weekly blog, This Week in Poverty, because we felt that media coverage of poverty was woefully inadequate. The blog focused on people living in poverty, solutions to poverty, and ways for people to get involved in the fight against poverty.
I felt honored that so many people shared their stories with me—stories that really exposed the vulnerability of the people telling them. The most vulnerable of all, of course, are the people actually living in poverty—46.5 million people now, more than 1 in 7 of us—living on less than about $18,300 annually for a family of three. They are vulnerable to the stereotyping and venom that they so often receive from society; to the huge stakes involved in policy decisions that deeply affect their lives; and especially vulnerable to the daily challenges of their own lives—just finding a time and place to talk is a challenge, and doing so with a reporter they didn’t even know was a real leap of faith.
The people who dedicate themselves to fighting poverty are also vulnerable. They are often ignored or even mocked; sometimes struggle with a sense of isolation, or a feeling of powerlessness, or burnout; and many feel a frustration that readily apparent solutions—solutions that could dramatically reduce the number of people living in poverty—are not even on the radar of most elected leaders and the general public.
I think that’s why the response to This Week in Poverty was so strong—because we valued the experiences of people living in poverty and we weren’t doing “gotcha” coverage; and we valued the work of people engaged in the issue. We also valued getting the facts on poverty straight.
We developed a real community—people who were knowledgeable and passionate about this issue, and wanted a way to speak up. At no time was that more clear than when we ran a series of blogs called “#TalkPoverty: Questions for President Obama and Governor Romney” during the presidential campaign. We profiled low-income people, advocates, and researchers, and gave them a chance to ask President Obama and Governor Romney the questions that they wanted answers to. In the end, the Obama campaign responded to our questions, the Romney campaign didn’t, and now we all know why there is no President Romney.
While that might not be true, what is true is that #TalkPoverty took off and continues to thrive on Twitter today.
After two years, any separation between my work as a poverty reporter and my desire to work as an anti-poverty activist had disappeared. I started pitching ideas to advocates (they used at least .000003% of them!). Additionally, while the decision about what to write every week wasn’t hard, deciding what not to write was. There are so many stories out there that need to be heard—whether about low-income workers; people with barriers to employment who can’t receive assistance; segregated schools; the demonization of people in poverty; the cradle-to-prison pipeline; Native American poverty; the costs of continuing education…. and though there are a number of very dedicated reporters who now cover poverty, there aren’t nearly enough. I felt that no matter how hard we worked, we were barely making a dent in telling the story of poverty in America and what we as a nation can do about it.
So I got to thinking, what if we didn’t have to wait for media to tell the stories that need to be told? What if we went directly to low-income people, and to people working on poverty, and they told the stories themselves? Some could write them, some could do video or audio—couldn’t we create a single website where people would be able to find more stories about poverty than are currently available?
When I decided to leave reporting, approaching the Half in Ten Education Fund for this project was in some ways like coming full circle. I’d discovered Half in Ten in 2007 when I worked as a researcher for my friend Katrina vanden Heuvel, Editor and Publisher of The Nation. I was very impressed with the campaign’s ability to demonstrate in a concrete way that we could in fact cut poverty in half over ten years with the right policy choices.
In 2011, as we prepared to launch This Week in Poverty, Melissa Boteach, who ran Half in Ten at the time, was an invaluable adviser. She introduced me to incredible grassroots groups like Witnesses to Hunger, and strong national organizations like the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) and the National Women’s Law Center; great researchers like Donna Pavetti and Arloc Sherman at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; and stellar advocates like Debbie Weinstein at the Coalition on Human Needs. Not to mention, Half in Ten clearly understood the importance of story—to give people in poverty a platform to speak out; and to make policy debates less abstract and more human, in order to affect change.
This past December, it took me, Half in Ten Associate Director Erik Stegman, and Melissa—who now runs the poverty team at the Center for American Progress—less than a cup of coffee to realize that we were all passionate about this idea. Not only could we have a home for the stories of people living in poverty and people working on the issue, we could also provide data to raise awareness and counter misinformation, and link people with groups that are fighting poverty all over the country.
And so here we are today with the launch of TalkPoverty.org. We want this to be your community—a place where we build bridges with one another, grow the movement, and work to dramatically reduce poverty. We want your ideas and your involvement, so reach out.
Right now, more than 46 million people are living in poverty in America, including more than 1 in 5 children; another 60 million people are just a single hardship away from falling into poverty. The Talkpoverty.org community is dedicated to them: with our words, our actions, and our shared commitment.
Greg Kaufmann is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Editor of TalkPoverty.org.