The past month or so has been a pretty interesting time in the history of the American political media. They are doing all this anecdotal reporting now! And frequently talking to middle- and lower-class people!
It's neat-o, guys, great effort. And something I've long encouraged because in the past handful of years, middle- and lower-class people have been living very interesting lives. There has been this whole unemployment crisis thingy -- the long-term unemployed face a job market in which there are four job seekers for every job opening, and the longer you've been unemployed, the more likely it is you'll be discriminated against when you finally get a job interview. Also, tons of people have lost their homes. Lots of Americans are losing the subsidies that allow them the luxury of not starving to death over the holidays.
And the news today is that in "2012, the top 1% of earners in the U.S. collected 19.3% of the country’s total household income," and that while "incomes of the top 1% grew by 31.4% from 2009 to 2012," the rest of the population netted just 0.4 percent by comparison. It's a really interesting situation! American taxpayers bailed out a bunch of failing banks, and got no benefit from having done so. In fact, the notion that these people are either lazy layabouts or parasitical takers is given a lot of credence by reporters. It is considered to be a valid "side" in a great "debate."
But now, there has been a reversal in the press' willingness to actually reach out and talk to a bunch of poor people. This has mainly been driven by all of the recent roiling of the health care market wrought by the Affordable Care Act, which has caused a number of people to lose the health care plans they once had. A portion of these people will likely benefit when and if access to the ACA's exchanges ever becomes possible. Another portion, however, will end up losing out and having to procure a plan that's either more expensive or less comprehensive than the one they held previously. (There will also be a portion of the population who will get affordable health care for the first time.)
The sad thing, of course, is that the press is coming to the "people are getting sad letters from their insurers" story well after it might have mattered. If you want to know when the "I lost my health care coverage" holocaust happened, it was back when the press was napping. Between January 2008 and December 2010, over 44,000 Americans were receiving the sad news about losing their insurance every week. That's a lot of people who are probably wondering why reporters are suddenly interested in what's been going on in their lives.
So what gives? Well, for one thing, poor people do not have powerful lobbyists willing to pose and preen as a salt-of-the-earth type on cable news. But the larger problem is that no one was particularly interested in the plight of American economic sufferers until their problems finally started to affect the polling numbers of super-affluent political celebrities -- specifically President Barack Obama, whose poll numbers are headed in the direction of Hades, plummeting right along in a handbasket of the administration's own weaving.
Of course, there are a great many things that could change in the near- and medium-term. That rickety website Healthcare.gov might actually start working as well as some of the state-run exchanges. Insurers might get the balance right, in terms of their risk pool. And this time next year, the portion of the population happily benefiting from all that "staying alive" and "not going into crippling debt" might, at least, outnumber those who lost out in the deal. But it's an open question as to whether these positive outcomes are going to occur.
The problem, though, as James Oliphant points out, is that should things start to roll in a more positive direction, all of this recent fervor for anecdotal reporting and getting the stories of ordinary Americans is just going to fall by the wayside: "So if this week's deadline comes along and the federal health care exchange works smoothly, it's a one or two-day story, maybe a week. It's not a seven-week story, as the Keystone Kops-style implementation has been."
What's more is that middle- and lower-class Americans pretty much instantaneously become very boring to reporters:
What it all means is that even if the Affordable Care Act works perfectly from Nov. 30 on (and no one is seriously expecting that), those whose lives are improved by the program represent just a relative handful of people, many of whom sit at the lower end of the economic spectrum and engage little with the political process. As Geer says, "They tend not to vote."
Right, do poor people even count? Sure, when you can wring from their hard struggles a story titled, "A Better Obamacare Won’t Save Obama." Of course, Obamacare was not designed to "save" Obama -- he has a lot of money, and will always have good health care. He's one of the people who actually does not and will never need saving. Sure, there are a handful of people who probably sweat his poll numbers. Good luck with that, if you're one of those people. My main concern is that tens of millions of people were uninsured in 2008 and this Affordable Care Act is what we've come up with to help them. If it fails, those people are screwed for the next 20 years, because it will take that long to gin up the political courage to mount another attempt at ameliorating that problem.
So, I see these truths in a much different light. When the struggles of ordinary Americans have a deleterious impact on the polling fortunes of affluent politicians, those struggles suddenly merit attention. But when the actions of lawmakers have a deleterious impact on the lives of ordinary Americans, all of that attention fades. I really like the sudden uptick in anecdotal reporting on various economic sufferers. It's a pity that it's such a passing fad.
[CORRECTION: A statistic pertaining to income growth was inadvertently left out of the third paragraph. It has now been amended. I regret the confusion.]
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