The Best Poverty Journalism in 2015: TalkPoverty Radio’s Picks

Here at and TalkPoverty Radio, we recognize strong media coverage of poverty on an ongoing basis. Here’s a look back at some of the best poverty journalism in 2015. These 20 stories and op-eds drew attention to critical but underreported issues, rebutted persistent myths, shed light on barriers to economic security and mobility, lifted up policy solutions, provided insightful commentary on media coverage of poverty, and even served as a catalyst for change. (Stories are listed in no particular order.)


The price of nice nails

by Sarah Maslin Nir, New York Times

This two-part series exposes the dark world of nail salons, from wage theft to poisonous working conditions. Soon after this reporting, Governor Cuomo (D-NY) signed legislation providing greater protections to workers in New York’s nail salons.


Why New Orleans’ black residents are still underwater after Katrina

by Gary Rivlin, New York Times

In this compelling excerpt from his book, Katrina After the Flood, Rivlin explores New Orleans 10 years after Hurricane Katrina through the eyes of Alden J. McDonald, who founded one of the Deep South’s first black-owned banks. His examination reveals how New Orleans’ African-American families continue to struggle and how many remain priced out of returning home.


The remarkably high odds you’ll be poor at some point in your life

by Emily Badger and Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post’s Wonkblog

A little-known fact about poverty in America is that “the poor” are not some static group of people living in poverty year after year. Badger and Ingraham smartly bust that myth and explain how economic hardship is a surprisingly common experience.


How companies make millions off lead-poisoned, poor blacks

by Terrence McCoy, Washington Post

McCoy’s important reporting gives voice to one of the most disturbing revelations of the year: companies are getting rich by swindling Baltimore’s lead-poisoned, poor black residents out of structured settlements for pennies on the dollar.


Under cover of darkness, female janitors face rape and assault

by Bernice Yeung, Center for Investigative Reporting

Yeung’s reporting sheds light on the silent epidemic of sexual assault among female janitors working the night shift. Through powerful interviews with survivors, Yeung underscores how our civil rights and criminal justice systems are struggling to provide justice.


Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Public defenders


John Oliver spent much of 2015 uncovering the injustices permeating our nation’s criminal justice system, including this hilarious—and horrifying—look at our massively underfunded public defense system.


The deep, troubling roots of Baltimore’s decline

by Jamelle Bouie, Slate

In the wake of the unrest in Baltimore spurred by Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of police officers, Jamelle Bouie pens this thoughtful essay looking at the anger that “remains, fueled by recurring—and almost unending—deprivation.”


The myth of welfare’s corrupting influence on the poor

by Eduardo Porter, New York Times

Porter takes a critical look at the legacy of “welfare reform” and debunks the common myth—embraced by prominent conservatives such as Rep. Paul Ryan—that public assistance fuels dependency.


Michigan punishes mom for her daughter’s brain cancer

by Justin Miller, The Daily Beast

It was no accident that Martha was cut off public assistance after her 12-year-old daughter was too sick to attend school due to cancer and a stroke; Miller’s illuminating reporting underscores how Martha’s family is one of hundreds who have lost needed aid since 2012 due to Michigan’s “Parental Responsibility Act”—a misguided attempt to punish aid recipients if their children miss school.


The black family in the age of mass incarceration

by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic

Fifty years after Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report The Negro Family kicked off our nation’s failed experiment with mass incarceration, the peerless Ta-Nehisi Coates unpacks the role of the criminal justice system in “destroying the black family.”


An atlas of upward mobility shows path out of poverty

by David Leonhardt, Amanda Cox, and Claire Cain Miller, New York Times’ The Upshot

A child’s zip code can determine her life chances. Leonhardt, Cox, and Miller unpack a watershed study showing how neighborhoods affect children and how “moving to opportunity” can boost a child’s chances at upward mobility. (Don’t miss the interactives on how your area compares.)


Texas sends poor teens to adult jail for skipping school

by Kendall Taggart and Alex Campbell, BuzzFeed

This story follows Serena, one of more than one thousand Texas teenagers (most of whom are poor and black or Hispanic) who have been locked up in jailed in the past three years on charges stemming from missing school. Soon after this reporting, the state of Texas decriminalized truancy.


Warren Buffett’s mobile home empire preys on the poor

by Dan Wagner and Mike Baker, Center for Public Integrity

This powerful joint investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and the Seattle Times uncovered a spate of predatory and deceptive practices perfected by the latest players to profit from poverty: the mobile home industry.


Why small debts matter so much to black lives

by Paul Kiel, ProPublica

About one-quarter of African-American families have less than $5 in reserve. Kiel’s groundbreaking analysis reveals how the racial wealth gap not only renders communities of color especially vulnerable to predatory lending and aggressive debt collection practices, but also magnifies racial disparities in discriminatory policing practices and their accompanying fees and fines.


Poor women in the United States don’t have abortion rights

by Maya Dusenbery, Pacific Standard

This important piece looks at how the ban on using Medicaid dollars to pay for abortions has kept many poor women from being able to end their pregnancies—and the far-reaching economic consequences of “forcing poor women into childbirth.” .


‘I put in white tenants’: The grim, racist (and likely illegal) methods of one Brooklyn landlord

by DW Gibson, New York Magazine

This harrowing article, excerpted from Gibson’s book The Edge Becomes the Center, uncovers the “racist and likely illegal” schemes of a Brooklyn landlord who paid black tenants thousands of dollars to leave his building.


What’s in a prison meal?

by Alysia Santo and Lisa Iaboni, The Marshall Project

Part of The Marshall Project’s Life Inside series, this piece reveals how inmates in some correctional facilities are literally starving—some describe licking syrup packets to curb their hunger—as legislators seek to slash food costs.


I get food stamps and I’m not ashamed—I’m angry

by Christine Gilbert, Vox

This must-read essay from a woman receiving nutrition assistance is a poignant and in-your-face missive to everyone who has ever said poor people are lazy.


Almost half of all American workers make less than $15 an hour

by Michelle Chen, The Nation

Three years after the #Fightfor15 movement was born out of the first Fast Food Forward strikes, Chen—one of the best labor reporters out there today—explores how the fight for a living wage “is not just for economic survival but for solutions to the inequality dividing communities.”


The homeless man who works in the Senate

by Catherine Rampell, Washington Post

In an eye-opening call for raising wages, Catherine Rampell introduces us to 63-year-old Charles Gladden, who has been homeless for decades despite working in the cafeteria of the U.S. Senate.

Authors’ note: To keep things fair, articles in which Center for American Progress was quoted were excluded from consideration for this list.


First Person

Surviving the Holidays While Poor

While the holiday season is meant to be a joyful time, for many of us it is a time of great financial challenge and worry.

Throughout December, as Christmas and New Year’s Eve drew closer, I felt increasing anxiety about how I would pay for necessities—rent, food, utilities—as well as some modest gifts for my children.

I listened as neighbors, friends, clients and other acquaintances discussed their holiday plans and travails, including: securing tickets to the new Star Wars movie; upcoming vacations to warm, tropical locations; a new snowboard and other fantastic gifts for their kids; and lavish holiday parties. One neighbor lamented that her husband didn’t want the $1,300 kayak she had just purchased for Christmas.

I can only dream of these kinds of stresses. One person’s kayak is another person’s rent.

I can only dream of these kinds of stresses. One person’s kayak is another person’s rent.

Despite working as a specialty baker, personal chef, pet sitter, and fitness instructor—including on nights and weekends—I fell about $600 short, or less than half of a kayak, of what I needed to make December’s rent. Thinking through how I could close that gap felt like watching the back and forth of a ping pong ball in my head, with one question ricocheting to another and another: If I cannot pay rent, where will we go? Should I consider a shelter? How many personal items do I need to sell and what do I have that’s of any value? Which utility bills do I need to postpone paying? When our food assistance (SNAP) runs out at the end of the month, how will we afford food? Should I go on a crowdfunding site to ask for help with my child’s medical expenses?

Mixed in with these questions was the sinking feeling that came with not knowing what I would tell my two children if I couldn’t afford any Christmas presents.

My experience felt surreal, like I inhabited an entirely different universe from those I interacted with in my daily life. But I also knew I was hardly alone. For example, at the top of an e-newsletter for one of my children’s schools was a “new policy” notice regarding students’ Apple Watches; just a few paragraphs below it was a “thank you” for donations that helped 50 school families like mine during the holiday season. I’m certain those families were as jarred by the juxtaposition as I was.

Within a few days of Christmas, providence presented itself to me in three unexpected forms: a last-minute pet sitting gig, a bonus from clients, and a generous gift from a church—none of whom knew of my predicament. These things, in addition to some extra baking orders for the holidays, secured just enough money to pay rent, all my utility bills, purchase food for December, and buy a few gifts for my kids.

The stress was gone—at least for a couple of weeks.

Now I’m worrying about this month, when my business income grinds to a near halt. I have also been informed that due to a computing error by human services, my monthly SNAP benefits will decrease by $125.

When people say that the holidays are stressful, I want to say, “Define stress.” For me and many others, the fullest meaning of peace and joy is simply this: not having to worry about how we will provide food, shelter, and heat for our loved ones.




How ‘The Wiz Live!’ Became the Progressive Political Statement That Black America Needed

The Hollywood class has weighed in, and there’s a consensus that NBC’s television event The Wiz Live! was an artistic and critical sensation. Viewed by some 11.5 million children and adults, the live musical—an African American version of The Wizard of Oz—was more than a theatrical triumph. It was a timely political statement and a cogent reminder that not only do Black lives matter, but our progressive values matter too.

Political agendas are often foisted onto moments of pop culture in clumsy and disingenuous ways. But for many Black people, myself included, The Wiz has always been more than a cultural interpretation of the beloved children’s book—it stands as a shining example of Black excellence and social progress.

Not only do Black lives matter, but our progressive values matter too.

In 1974, when the original stage musical premiered at a regional theater in Baltimore, Maryland, The Wiz epitomized the progress of the era. Social and economic reforms catalyzed by the Civil Rights Movement had created new entry points to the middle class and increased opportunities for African-American representation. These changes paved the way for a bold retelling of author L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s classic with an all-black cast and brazen cultural bend. That it went on to win seven Tony Awards, including the award for Best Musical, demonstrated a growing celebration of Black culture and identity.

Even more than the incarnations before it, The Wiz Live! carries on this affirmation of Black life through a progressive political lens, particularly in its decision to highlight feminist and queer themes within the show’s broader context of racial liberation. For example, Dorothy is presented as a savvy young woman who is endowed with a principled agency to act on behalf of herself and others; she is wide-eyed and innocent, sure, but she is also a cunning and charismatic leader who isn’t afraid to shut down casual micro-aggressions of sexism and patriarchy.


Queer culture and identity, too, are openly embraced in the world of The Wiz Live!—from Queen Latifah’s gender-bending portrayal of the Wiz, to choreographer Fatima Robinson’s Emerald City homage to the art of vogue, a style of dance that originated in the Black queer ballroom scene of the 1980s.


Moreover, the reimagined world of The Wiz Live! establishes economic justice as a central pillar of a broader racial justice movement. In this Oz, evil frequently operates at the intersection of moral and economic considerations: the insidious danger of the Poppies lies in their penchant for pressing their unsuspecting victims into harsh tours of indentured servitude; likewise, the Wicked Witch of the West, Evillene, runs a massive sweatshop empire fueled by corporate greed and worker exploitation.

These dangers are juxtaposed against the interests of a cadre of central characters who are vividly portrayed as working class: Dorothy who comes from humble rural roots; the Scarecrow, who is literally begging for change so he can purchase the ability to forge a better life for himself; and even the Tin Man, a day laborer by trade who is rusted solid while on the job. Together with the Cowardly Lion, their journey to see the Wiz becomes a salient example of collective action for economic justice—they are unable to achieve their ultimate goals separately, so they join together to overcome their shared challenges.

The show’s examination of the value of Black work takes on added meaning when one considers the effort that made the live production possible. In the same manner that past incarnations of The Wiz epitomized Black excellence for previous generations, The Wiz Live! demonstrated modern Black excellence at it’s finest, filled with dazzling artistic and technical performances. While seemingly superficial and indulgent, the fact is that the production was a record-breaking, expectation-defying success for one of the country’s largest media outlets matters. In a world where Black achievement is constantly under attack, public demonstrations of Black merit become revolutionary political acts.

The Wiz Live! was a dynamic, unabashed declaration of Black life—the joy and brilliance of Black people that undergirds our ability to thrive, even in the face of pervasive anti-black sentiment and violence against our bodies. It was a progressive political affirmation of Black beauty, talent and resilience. More importantly, it was a potent reminder that the real power to create change lies in our ability to come together around shared goals and values.





This Holiday Season, Workers in Poultry Plants Need a Union

While some Americans will pay upwards of $12 a pound for a heritage breed bird this Christmas, Minnesota workers who toil year-round in poultry plants are struggling to survive.

Minnesota, ranked as the largest slaughterer of turkeys in the nation, has long been an epicenter of the American meatpacking industry. The state is home to 33 major meatpacking plants, and, with just over 12,000 workers in the sector, boasts the highest concentration of jobs in the industry nationwide. But over the past few decades, as plants began to crop up in rural areas and small cities far removed from the influence of urban unions, these jobs have grown less secure. Today, a mere nine plants in the state are organized.

It is clear that the rest stand to benefit from collective bargaining. The industry ranks as one of the most dangerous in the country, recording almost 39,800 nonfatal injuries nationwide—or 7.5 cases per every 100 full-time workers in 2008. Workers can also be exposed to toxic levels of pathogens and chemicals, like ammonia.

An employee was crushed to death while cleaning out a machine.

Minnesota factories are no exception to these safety hazards. At a plant operated by turkey giant Jennie-O in Melrose—a small city 100 miles northwest of Minneapolis—injuries are not uncommon. In 2006, for example, an employee was crushed to death while cleaning out a machine. Other workers report being harmed by excessive speeds on production lines, says Ahmed Ali, who advocates for employees at the Melrose plant as a Lead Staff Organizer at the Greater Minnesota Worker Center. According to Ali, lines often run at speeds that are double the industry averages, which can lead to repetitive motion injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome. Through a spokesperson, Hormel—Jennie-O’s parent company—says that line speeds at the Melrose plant comply with government standards.

But Omer Hassan, a former worker at the Melrose plant, claims that excessive line speeds led him to develop a musculoskeletal injury that rendered his right hand inoperative. According to Hassan, he still suffers “severe pain” on his right side. Following the injury, he took time off to see a doctor and says he was denied pay for missing work. He was subsequently fired in August 2015, which has jeopardized his ability to provide for himself and his mother. As he told TalkPoverty, “It has been difficult for me and for my mom. I have always had a job and brought home a paycheck. That’s all gone for now.” Hormel did not comment on this specific case, but said that in the event of an injury, employees are given “suitable alternative duties” while they recuperate.

These poor labor conditions extend beyond Melrose. Barbara, whose name has been changed to protect anonymity, is an employee of the Gold’N Plump chicken plant in St. Cloud. She says the production line there is like a “flowing, raging river.” Workers who cannot keep up are asked to sign a warning letter or are even terminated on the spot. According to Barbara, those who request to use the restroom more than three times a month are also asked to sign a warning letter—a practice that would run contrary to state law, which requires an option for a bathroom break every four consecutive hours of work. Through a spokesperson, Gold’N Plump said that the company provides regularly scheduled breaks for workers and recognizes that “each person is unique, which may mean accommodating additional restroom breaks” for some. However, the company did not deny that it issues warning letters for additional bathroom use.

On top of these alleged abuses in the industry, wages are low. According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, in Kandiyohi, Meeker, Renville, and McLeod counties, annual median wages for slaughterers and meatpackers amount to $27,909, which is just above the federal poverty line for a family of four. By contrast, Hormel CEO Jeffrey Ettinger reportedly took home more than $13 million in total compensation in 2014.

Given these conditions, the need for stronger protections for workers is clear. In Watonwan County, workers at the Butterfield Foods chicken slaughter plant are represented by United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1161. According to Darin Rehnelt, a representative for the union, UCFW Local 1161 has successfully negotiated grievance procedures to protect workers against unlawful termination, as well as nine paid holidays a year, time-and-a-half after eight hours, and double-time on Sundays. Rehnelt says that collective bargaining has also allowed workers to set up internal structures to increase safety. Union stewards monitor line speeds and labor conditions, and workers can share concerns with a health and safety committee. If laborers are injured, they have recourse to a union-provided attorney who specializes in workers’ compensation law.

Our poultry need not be consumed at the cost of workers’ dignity.

The striking contrast between the plants demonstrates some of the immediate benefits of unionization, such as increased wages and benefits. But on a broader level, unions are also key to ensuring economic and social mobility. According to the Center for American Progress, low-income children are more upwardly mobile in areas with higher rates of union membership. And unions also play a central role in combating income inequality; lower rates of unionization are associated with an increased share of income going to the wealthiest Americans.

Our poultry need not be consumed at the cost of workers’ dignity. By building a strong labor movement at the company, state, and federal level, progressives can change a status quo predicated on giving workers a raw deal.



First Person

I Thought I Was a Young Invincible. I Was Wrong.

When the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, I honestly didn’t believe it applied to me. I was young and healthy, and faced other, more pressing concerns at the time, such as pursuing my education.

But all that changed this February when I was sitting on the train on my way to my graduate class and felt my heart race. I wasn’t nervous or stressed, but could feel my pulse thundering throughout my body—the type of feeling you get when your professor is cold-calling students with questions and you haven’t done the reading.

Chastened, I resolved to start running again and cut back on my caffeine. But my palpitations didn’t go away. After two months of diet and exercise (and persistent chiding from my mother), I reluctantly went to the doctor. I didn’t expect much to come out of it. Why would I need to see a doctor? I was young and healthy and heart problems only happened to older people—I was a young invincible.

My first real sense of concern arose when the nurse practitioner put her stethoscope to my chest and her eyes widened. She proceeded to tell me that I had a very clear heart murmur, a whooshing sound indicating turbulent blood around my heart. An echocardiogram later revealed a mitral valve prolapse, and a subsequent test showed significant regurgitation.

I went from being a healthy young adult to one in need of heart surgery.

Put into plain English, one of the valves of my heart doesn’t close properly, allowing blood that should be pumped out of my heart to spill back in. In cases like this, the heart compensates and pumps harder to keep the blood out. My doctor recommended mitral valve repair surgery, an open-heart surgery that will require me to stay in the hospital for at least five days after the operation, followed by four to six weeks’ recuperation.

And so, in a period of three months, I went from being a healthy young adult to one in need of heart surgery. I was shocked, but in some ways I was lucky. I was insured, thanks to the Affordable Care Act.

The ACA helped me when I transferred from a full-time position to a part-time one and lost my employer-provided health insurance. After conversations with multiple people about the risks of forgoing health insurance, I decided to purchase coverage through the New York marketplace.

I am incredibly fortunate that I chose—and was able to afford—the route of subsidized insurance premiums. While the cost for mitral valve repair surgery before insurance is around $30,000, the entire ordeal can cost upwards of $200,000. With that high of a price tag, the surgery would have financially crippled me. But due to my insurance, I will only be responsible for copays and deductibles.

I cannot imagine the stress of knowing I could not afford a surgery that could save my life. But that’s a reality for too many Americans—particularly millennials of color—even though the ACA has resulted in the largest gains in coverage in decades. These gaps are in part due to the fact that 20 states have refused to expand Medicaid, which has meant that 3.1 million otherwise eligible adults fall into what is known as the “coverage gap”—they earn too much for Medicaid but too little to access the subsidies they need to afford insurance. Of that group, nearly half are adults aged 19 to 34.

With that high of a price tag, the surgery would have financially crippled me.

The fact that vulnerable people have been left without insurance doesn’t seem to bother some on the right, including governor-elect Matt Bevin of Kentucky. Although the state has already expanded Medicaid, Bevin has promised to dismantle the state-run Kynect exchange, leaving over 300,000 people that were previously covered through the expansion without affordable health insurance. This disastrous move would undo the immense good that the policy has achieved, including the second largest drop in uninsured rates in the nation.

Furthermore, the Senate recently passed a bill that can only be described as highly destructive. The proposed legislation would nearly double the number of uninsured Americans by dismantling Medicaid expansion for the 30 states, plus the District of Columbia, that have already implemented it. Simultaneously, it would eliminate subsidies that help low-income people purchase coverage.

This proposal represents a callous disregard for the lives of low-income Americans. We should be removing barriers to insurance, not impeding paths to coverage. I hope that our elected officials consider the human costs of their decisions and remember citizens like myself whose lives might depend on accessing that coverage.